If you walk into a jazz club in downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul you probably won't see many black faces in the audience, even though the music is largely an African-American creation and stellar black musicians call the Twin Cities home.
That could give some the impression that jazz has ceased to be relevant to black people. But for jazz drummer Davu Seru, it signals a need for artists to take action.
"It might be that we are not taking the music to people," he said. "We are expecting them to come to us."
With that in mind, Seru pulled together an all-star cast to explore the rich and evolving black cultural tradition. Joining him in The Mother of Masks ensemble are poet Louis Alemayehu, vocalist Mankwe Ndosi, saxophonist Donald Washington and bassist Anthony Cox.
In their debut performance tonight at the Bedlam Theatre's new space in St. Paul, the musicians will blend spoken word, poetry and improvised music in a blues-based fountain of black creative consciousness. Seru thinks audiences may warm to music in the theater, which offers people a chance to connect with jazz and other great music without having to go to a bar.
IF YOU GO
What: The Mother of Masks collective, featuring Louis Alemayehu, Mankwe Ndosi, Donald Washington, Anthony Cox and Davu Seru.
Where: Bedlam Theater East, 213 E. Fourth Street, St. Paul
When: 7:30 p.m., tonight
"We've all been talking about playing and this was an opportunity for me to get everybody in the same room," Seru said. "It's not even often that you see all-black ensembles in the jazz scene here. So this was a special opportunity to do that, a family affair."
Much like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, the artists aim to honor an expansive culture built on collective and individual expression: From the blues and modern jazz to the stirring poetic activism and communal storytelling of Ndosi, whose latest recording, Science and Spirit, fuses hip-hop neo-soul and r&b.
The ensemble will show how the varied forms of black expression -- from Louis Armstrong to hip-hop — are inextricably linked Seru said.
An avant-garde drummer, he works regularly with multi-instrumentalist and free jazz musician Milo Fine, guitarist Dean Magraw and the bands Merciless Ghost, Take Acre and Body Omara.
In contrast, Alemayehu, who was born in Chicago of African and Native American heritage, performs in support of African liberation, Native American land rights, spirituality, the battered women's movement and human rights.
Washington leads a quartet with trombonist Brad Bellows and performs with his wife, flutist and vocalist Faye Washington, and his son, Kevin. Cox is an internationally known bassist who has performed with saxophonists Dewey Redman and Joe Lovano and guitarists John Scofield and Pat Metheny.
"We're preoccupied these days with different communities but coming together I think what we show is a sort of black mosaic," Seru said. "We all do these other projects and so it was nice to get everybody together."
On stage, the group will break into smaller groups, performing compositions and improvisations and honoring the tradition of oral storytelling.
Alemayehu has written a blues poem in honor of his late mother. Seru, who will accompany the poet on drums, envisions a New Orleans-style bridge between sorrow and joy.
"You're conjuring the blues in order to put it aside [and] get on past it so you can keep on living," he said. "It's solemn and low, and then the party starts."
A literary scholar and jazz practitioner, Seru said the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians offers a great example of how to celebrate a rich cultural heritage.
"They just call it great black music," he said. "They often don't use terms like jazz. It's all a part of the same stream — great black music, ancient to the future."