American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom
By John Daversa Big Band featuring DACA Artists
By Kabir Sehgal, Doug Davis
Maestro on a Mission
“I grew up in Oklahoma hearing stories around the kitchen table about my immigrant ancestors,” said John Daversa, who is a composer, arranger, and trumpeter. All four of his paternal great-grandparents moved from Europe to America, entering through Ellis Island, at the turn of the twentieth century. Carmelo, John’s great-grandfather, came to America from Sicily at the urging of Josephine, his eventual wife, who said that she would only marry him if he found a job in the US. So, Carmelo traveled to San Francisco and began work as a vegetable merchant (and played accordion and sang, on the side), saved money, and later brought Josephine and her family from Sicily to join him. Josephine embarked upon a successful career in construction, and family lore has it that she spent time mixing concrete, before she ended up in the real estate industry.
Relatives from another branch of John’s family tree also came by way of Ellis Island. His great-grandparents Emidio and Angelina settled in Connecticut and eventually moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where they worked in canneries on Cannery Row. Indeed, John’s ancestry is a veritable melting pot, many parts Italian, and also Welsh and Native American. In fact, on his mom’s side, he is related to Sergeant Alvin York who served in World War I and earned the Medal of Honor for leading an offensive against German machine gunners. And John’s mother is a Daughter of the American Revolution, by virtue of the fact that her relatives fought in the Revolutionary War.
“My ancestors have come from all over, and many have embodied the American Dream, and that’s something in which I take great pride,” said John. “So, when I saw what was happening to these young Americans, the Dreamers, I felt viscerally about their situation. And I knew that I had to do something about it,” he said.
To be sure, John is a man of considerable artistic talents. But perhaps his greatest gift is his remarkable ability to work with young people. He is the Chair of the Studio Music and Jazz Department at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. He knows firsthand how important music is not just to the development and advancement of young people but to
their sense of wellbeing and self-confidence. The father of a young daughter, he understands how young minds see the world with wonder and excitement. And through music, this capacity for imagination and hope can be kept alive and aflame.
When the news started to flicker with stories of young people caught in the middle of a heated political debate, John turned to what he knows best, making music. But he didn’t just want to create an album, he wanted to make a statement – one that showcases Dreamers for who they are: talented, prodigious, eager, and creative. As an educator, he also thought a project featuring Dreamers might instill in them a sense of welcome and reassurance in these troubled times. By creating American Dreamers: Voice of Hope, Music of Freedom, John is injecting much needed humanity into the conversation about immigration. He observed, “Music can be part of the solution.”
The Making of the Album
In November 2017, we embarked upon this project with two parallel work streams (1) selecting and arranging the music; and (2) finding Dreamer musicians. There was ample discussion regarding which tracks to feature. John and the production team traded ideas and researched lyrics of both well-known and obscure songs of America. Right away, we knew that “Living In America” had to be on the record, and would make for a terrific opener. As the songs came into focus, John got busy writing lush and exquisite arrangements of these all-American numbers.
Meanwhile, John and the production team hand-selected professional musicians, who were based in Miami, Los Angeles and New York to serve as the big band on this record. And then came the arduous task of finding Dreamers to perform on the record. We found Dreamer artists by doing keyword searches on Google, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and also by checking with representatives of several immigration nonprofit organizations such as United We Dream, FWD.us, National Immigration Forum, Define American, and Emerson Collective. We stumbled upon our first Dreamer, Salvador Perez Lopez, a clarinetist majoring in music at Indiana University in a story in the New York Times. “When I first got the call, I thought it was SPAM,” laughed Salvador. “But when I looked up John’s background, I realized this was quite serious. I knew that I had to start practicing.”
By the time the recording sessions at the Frost School of Music in Miami rolled around in March 2018, we had confirmed fourteen Dreamers who played a range of instruments, from the violin and flute to piano and percussion. What made this project particularly challenging is that we didn’t know much about these Dreamers let alone their skill levels on their instruments. And John didn’t relent, as he turned in eight excellent arrangements that even the professional musicians found demanding. The sessions began with John’s big band (and Salvador) laying down each track. Every day, more Dreamers would show up, and they would sit in their respective section. For example, Miguel Martinez, a Dreamer from Illinois, took out his guitar (which he later asked John to autograph), as soon as he arrived, and sat next to Zach Larmer, the professional guitarist. And the two of them started jamming on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”
In another instance, Salvador told us that his university friend Juan Carlos Alarcon played the pipe organ and had learned about our project. The next day, Juan Carlos came to Miami, and we secured The Chapel of the Venerable Bede on campus to record him playing “America the Beautiful” on the pipe organ. During this session, Juan Carlos worked with Tal Cohen, the big band pianist (himself an Israeli-born immigrant who is the recipient of a rare “Genius” Artist visa), who guided him with which jazz voicings would be best for the track.
Denzel Mendoza, a professional jazz trombonist from Oregon, took an overnight flight to Miami, after one of John’s students caught wind of the project and told us about this West Coast Dreamer. Denzel sat in the trombone section which was led by Paul Young, an acclaimed trombonist. This “near-peer” bandstand learning was remarkable to watch in person. Many of
the Dreamers arrived unsure of what was expected of them, but as they rehearsed and found the right notes, their confidence grew, knowing full-well that they could hang and contribute in a meaningful way. While the music recording sessions were underway, there were
two other sessions taking place. First, there was a documentary crew that was filming everything, including in-person interviews with each Dreamer, getting their backstory and learning why they play music. Second, the music production team was interviewing each Dreamer, so that we could include interstitial spoken-word narrative tracks on the album. Their searing stories overcame us with tears and emotions. We even had to pause some of these sessions so that everyone could gather themselves. It was indeed moving to hear young, successful, hardworking artists telling us about how much they love America, and what it means to them to be an American.
The Miami sessions ended with the music mostly recorded. Though our time with the Dreamers left us inspired, we also felt incomplete – like there was more we needed to do. So, we began inviting more DACA artists to contribute their voices to the project. And as John toured the nation with his band and to lead music residencies at various schools, he met Dreamers all over the country and recorded them. He became an evangelist for the cause, educating those he met along the way who had never heard of the Dreamer issue in the first place. Soon Dreamers were introducing us to their friends who wanted to be part of the project. All told, we recorded 53 Dreamers on this album, from 17 states, and from 17 birth countries. As the news continued to report the plight of Dreamers, John and the team felt a personal responsibility to include and touch as many of these young people with this project as we could.
These talented artists poured their hearts and souls into this production. On this record, you will hear Dreamers performing featured solos, instrumental accompaniments, spoken word poetry, string swells, multi-layered percussion grooves, lead vocals, shout choruses, and electrifying raps. You’ll even hear a Dreamer remix artist re-imagining the entire production. Indeed, their musical performances are rich and diverse and reflect the variety found not just in the Dreamer community but across our great nation.
All American Repertoire
The album begins with Salvador’s personal narrative, and his lyrical clarinet leaps and pirouettes in the background. The piece segues into the first musical track “Living In America,” which begins with ambient street noise and bright staccato hits in groupings that match the Fibonacci sequence of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8. This musical allusion refers to the Dreamer movement which actually began with a single undocumented musician (known as the first Dreamer whose 2001 court case led to the drafting of the DREAM Act), and has since grown into a national movement.
These “Fibonacci hits” recurs as a motive throughout the piece, a reminder that it takes persistence and resilience to “grow” meaningful change. In this piece, John builds the preamble of the song with such suspense, that by the time the Dreamers belt the chorus, you’re already singing it in your head. The song has an invitational spirit, as if you’re at a block party with Melvin Butler throwing down a thrilling tenor saxophone solo.
Salvador reprises his feature clarinet solo in the middle of the song, which gives way to Dreamers shouting the names of cities where they’re from. The piece culminates with an Afro-Caribbean groove in which Dreamers sing “I live in America” in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Urdu with Julie Kim, a Dreamer in Los Angeles, riffing in Korean.
“Don’t Fence Me In” is the vintage Cole Porter tune, that typifies the twentieth-century Cowboy spirit, as it was featured in films starring Roy Rogers during the 1940s. John’s arrangement begins with the precision of Gene Coye’s drums, which serve as musical bookends for the Dreamers to shout “Don’t Fence Me In” in English and Spanish. During the 1940s, Japanese-Americans who were in internment camps sang this song which provoked their American captors. In a nod to the historical use of the tune, the Dreamers sing in Japanese “Don’t take away our dreams.” John demonstrates his virtuosic trumpeting with a buoyant solo that becomes increasingly atonal and formless. The entire band and dozens of Dreamers join the free jazz group solo, a testament to the liberating nature of this music. For example, during this section Israel Arce, a Dreamer from Georgia, tremolos on his violin, and Saba thumps the piano. Everyone improvises collectively as if to say: The human spirit won’t be contained –no matter the obstacles or policies.
We meet Caliph on the subsequent track, a Dreamer based in Massachusetts, who earned a university scholarship but couldn’t attend because of his immigration status. He flew down to the Miami sessions with just twelve-hour notice, and he improvised his verses without compunction. Those of us in the booth were nodding our heads with admiration, as he electrified the late-night session with his riveting performance on Immigrant Song.” Caliph’s stanzas get increasingly more pointed, and in the final passage a group of Dreamers affirm the words “Immigrant” and “Citizen” to bring home the track.
Daisy Cardozo, a Dreamer from Texas, shares that her family came to America to seek medical help for her sister. As a singer, Daisy has always turned to music for healing and personal enjoyment. When John heard her voice, he knew she would be the ideal candidate to sing “Deportee,” the heart-wrenching song by Woody Guthrie and Martin Hoffman about the plane crash in California in 1948 that was carrying migrant workers. Guthrie was surprised that the newspapers didn’t list the names of the deceased (except the American crew), instead just calling them “deportees.” John was taken by this searing song and created an intricate arrangement with an elegant orchestral accompaniment. Daisy sings a beautiful and haunting rendition of this piece. Her voice is imbued with poignancy and emotionality. Given her personal story, she inhabits the song fully and was moved to tears during the recording of it.
Denzel shares his story that he wanted to join the US armed services, but his army recruiter told him that it wasn’t possible due to his immigration status. With barely a pause, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the quintessential John Philip Sousa march jets off with a touch of irony, and also briskly at 305 beats per minute (intentionally, the area code of Miami). That Dreamers are being turned away from our military services yet playing what amounts to an ode to our country shows the bigness of their hearts and also the talent of their musicality. John’s arrangement demonstrates his capabilities to render a familiar song afresh, blending cinematic swells with meticulous runs.
Juan Carlos explains that he is a self-taught organ player who had to earn the respect of the local teacher in his community. Self-reliance and curiosity are indeed characteristics that we found across all the Dreamers involved in the project. And so is humility: “Mozart said that the organ is the king of instruments,” said Juan Carlos. “I feel so humbled to be in front of such a giant instrument.” Accompanying his organ are Dreamers softly singing “America the Beautiful,” which is followed by the full version of this tune. It was a no-brainer to include this the tug-at-
your-heart piece that ends with Dreamers again singing the lyrics in the foreground. Many of us were in tears during the recording session, as these young Americans sang about “grace” and “brotherhood.” In what is a telling example of John’s penchant for surprise in his arrangements, he begins the tune with his quiet, searching trumpet line. And then…BAM! You’re run over by a freight train of horns. This may be a commentary on the Dreamer struggle: It seemed like protected status was at hand, but then it was whisked away suddenly. The big band goes full Basie with a soli that sparkles with clarity and rhythmic ingenuity (set in 5/4). The piece ends with a moment of levity: Father Rey Pineda, a Dreamer and Catholic priest based in Georgia asks, “Can I get an AMEN?”
Alicia del Aguila, a Dreamer from Miami, speaks about how her immigration status has been the source of much anxiety, and she discovered that drumming is a terrific way to release what she has inside. The heartbeat of the dreamer movement is that of the drum, as many have taken to this instrument during nonviolent protests and demonstrations. The subsequent track “America” is an all-percussion track on which over a dozen Dreamers worked with professional musician Murph Aucamp to generate the many layers and levels of the track. The well-known melody from West Side Story repeats throughout. This piece is as much intended to be heard as it is felt. You will hear the textures combine into a composite, interlocked, and syncopated rhythm, as if to say – we may be moving at our own pace, but we’re all headed in the same direction.
Maria Moreno, also a Dreamer from Miami, shares her affinity of flute and jazz. You can hear the joy in her voice. It’s this uplifting spirit that carries over into the next song. An original composition, “All is One” is exactly what this album needed. A mirthful, even jubilant feel-good track that gives a feeling of hope. The memorable melody will give you something to sing with enjoyment. John performs a soaring solo on the Electronic Valve Instrument and the band readily grooves along.
Edson Alvarado Fierro begins riffing a bluesy trumpet line, letting everyone know that you play the blues in order to get rid of the blues. Then he shares a gripping spoken word poem that he composed, with the sound of snaps in the background, harkening back to the Beat Generation performances of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in the 1950s: “They call us illegal aliens. Illegal because we stay too long, alien because we don’t belong…We call ourselves by one name ‘Dreamers.’ We dream of having not nightmares of the past but dreams of the future,” he affirms. The subsequent piece “Red, White, and Remixed” is the creation of James, a Dreamer who mashed together several tracks on the album. Adding a trap beat, this talented music producer inserts an interlude of the spoken word “I’m a Dreamer” narratives, which gives a sense of how many Dreamers are involved in this project. As the final track on this record, it presents a hopeful glimmer of the future: America’s music and people will increasingly come together.
United States of Jazz
That Dreamers are playing jazz music is fitting given the role this genre has played in American history. This virgin artistic voice of our country, jazz has been the music of freedom and protest. It has served as America’s soundtrack, which was exported and consumed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, arguably winning the hearts and minds of millions. Not only did other countries learn about America through jazz, but this music has, at times, served as a mirror (and telescope)for Americans. After all, the jazz band was integrated long before
Major League Baseball or meaningful Civil Rights legislation was enacted. Musicians on the bandstand have served as a model of what America can become. Dreamers may not “officially” be welcome in the US, but they are absolutely accepted, appreciated, and admired in the jazz band. We hope that American Dreamers will be a touchstone for the immigration debate in our country. It’s hard enough to change people’s minds with facts and figures. And we realize that change doesn’t come over night and that a solution won’t materialize without working together. Hence, we welcome everyone to this all-aboard musical experience. Melodies and harmonies appeal directly to the heart, so maybe this project can spark a conversation about shared values and common purpose, such as love of country and striving to strengthen it.
Putting aside the politics and partisanship of the current debate, all of us can enjoy the songs of our nation. Perhaps this album can inspire us to focus more on what unites than divides us: Instead of red states and blue states, this album gets us thinking in terms of the red, white, and blues. We’re confident that when you check out this music, you’ll forget that you’re listening to
Dreamers and hear them for who they truly are – Americans.
–Kabir Sehgal & Doug Davis
July 2018, New York, NY