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In addition to being Chair of Studio Music and Jazz at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, John Daversa is a multiple-Grammy-nominated trumpeter, bandleader and recording artist. As an educator and father, he has a strong affinity for cultivating the talents and dreams of young people. As the grandson of Italian immigrants who entered the United States through Ellis Island, he cherishes the roots and stories of his grandparents, who worked in California canneries while playing music on the side.
These many facets of Daversa’s life and career merge ambitiously on American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom (BFM Jazz), an expansive work featuring Daversa’s big band along with vocal and instrumental contributions from more than 50 “Dreamers” — young, undocumented people afforded temporary residency status in the United States via the Deferred Action for Childhood Early Arrivals (DACA) policy, but whose future in the States has been rendered uncertain by the Trump administration.
Nine poignant first-person narratives by Dreamers provide a compelling through-line for Daversa’s bold, energetic brass-and-string arrangements of songs that reflect various aspects of the charged issue. The collection includes traditional patriotic tunes (“America the Beautiful,” “Stars and Stripes Forever”), rock and pop classics that speak across the years to this moment (James Brown’s “Living in America,” Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song”) and old but once-again timely songs like Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” and “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” Woody Guthrie’s folk number about a 1948 plane crash in California that killed migrant workers. Another highlight is a hypnotic twist on Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “America” (from West Side Story) that features only the song’s percussion line performed in drum-circle fashion.
[caption id="attachment_17532" align="alignnone" width="1024"] John Daversa (right) conducting an ensemble of "Dreamer" vocalists.[/caption]
Daversa also includes “All Is One,” an eight-and-a-half-minute, multi-movement original that begins with him stretching on an Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI), builds to booming brass crescendos throughout and offers a handful of Dreamers ample room to improvise. “It’s got a singable, simple pentatonic melody that everyone can come together on, kind of like an anthem that gives them license to do their thing,” the bandleader says. “My intention was to create a piece imbued with joy, hope and togetherness, culminating into a single theme.”
Two nights before the 2018 midterm election, Daversa brought the project to Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, California, with an ensemble of 20 (including a rhythm section, brass and strings) that was so large that it overflowed from the stage into the packed audience. When Daversa was not playing trumpet or EVI, he was out among the crowd, conducting in the only space available.
“The larger story of this project is that these Dreamers are not simply numbers or statistics to throw around for political purposes. They are human beings, proud Americans … and represent the way we all connect together through music.”
Throughout the show, Daversa spoke about the inspiration for the project and the precarious situation the Dreamers face. He brought to the stage five exciting young talents who, he explained, are as American as anyone else, but who find themselves at risk because they are undocumented. As Daversa eloquently stated, those musicians embodied the importance of “taking care of our own.” After all of them contributed spirited vocals to the chorus of “Living in America,” they returned one by one to showcase their individual skills. One of them, Julie Kim, sang a ballad she had written called “Dreamer.” Rapper Caliph engaged in some speedy rhyming over the familiar riff of “The Immigrant Song.”
“The larger story of this project is that these Dreamers are not simply numbers or statistics to throw around for political purposes,” says Daversa, who has also staged performances of the project at the Gusman Concert Hall at the University of Miami and the Ridgewood Conservatory in Paramus, New Jersey. “They are human beings, proud Americans … and represent the way we all connect together through music. On each of the narratives on the album, the Dreamers talk about their relationship with music and what it means to be an American. Beyond all the challenging logistics and organization involved in such a project, everyone who participated in these recording sessions felt the emotional weight of the deeper narrative. Some of us had to stop at times to gather ourselves before we could move on.”
Daversa and his production team worked with several non-profit organizations to locate Dreamer musicians who’d be willing to participate in the project. The trumpeter also scoured every locale in which he had a gig — from Oklahoma and Iowa to California and Connecticut — looking for prospects. In the end, Daversa and his team enlisted 53 Dreamers from 17 states who originally hailed from 17 countries, including Belize, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, South Korea and Sweden. During the extended selection process, Daversa wrote charts with spaces for solos without knowing who or what instrument would fill them.
[caption id="attachment_6811" align="alignnone" width="1024"] John Daversa won a Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for his project American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom.[/caption]
To serve as his big band on American Dreamers, Daversa and his team selected professional musicians from Miami, Los Angeles and New York, as well as a number of former and current students. The main tracking was done at the Frost School of Music in Miami, but recording sessions with Dreamers were also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Atlanta and elsewhere.
“Each Dreamer we worked with was a source of inspiration for me, the production team and the musicians,” Daversa says. “Giving them the opportunity to shine their individual lights and being there to witness their gifts emerge was a fulfilling, empowering experience. It truly made me believe that there’s a genius walking around somewhere in every human being I meet. A great example of this is Daisy Cardozo from Houston, who has one of the speaking interludes and sang a beautiful lead vocal on ‘Deportee.’ She’s had no formal musical education, but she’s a complete natural musician. The arrangement of the song is fast, in 5/8, with several meter changes, and is very complex and intricate on paper. She found a way to sweep over the whole thing effortlessly and bring natural emotion to it.
“That’s just one example of the way American Dreamers points to the fact that music is a true unifier, bringing people together for the greater good,” he adds. “If the heart is touched first, the head can’t be far behind. As it has throughout history, jazz offers the perfect platform to say, ‘Hey look at this issue. Maybe we can make a difference.’” — Jonathan Widran