By Howard Pousner
The National Black Arts Festival’s schedule is lean this year, the result of fund-raising realities amid a recession and a new leader’s push to focus the annual gathering’s programming.
Like last year’s edition, the upcoming festival will run five busy days, Wednesday through Sunday, July 14-18. Ambitious and diverse, the offerings range from a musical tribute to the late Curtis Mayfield and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon leading a big band performance of his score for the 1925 silent film “Body and Soul” to a “Brazil Fest” component organized in conjunction with the Consulate of Brazil in Atlanta. That festival within a festival imports the revered singer-composer Ivan Lins and the Afro-Brazilian percussion group Olodum, among other artists, from South America’s largest country.
Based last year at the Woodruff Arts Center, the fest is returning to Centennial Park and many ticketed events will be staged in venues within walking distance, such as the Rialto Center for the Arts.
“It’s a really walkable footprint,” said Neil A. Barclay, new NBAF executive producer and CEO. “That was the idea. We wanted to be able to have a home, frankly.”
In the park, visitors will find the popular 100-plus-booth International Marketplace, Children’s Education Village and concert Main Stage. That last attribute is especially exciting to Barclay, who came to Atlanta from Pittsburgh after opening the August Wilson Center for African American Culture last year.
“There’s some great people on the park stages this year for free — Roy Ayers, Liz Wright, come on!” Barclay exclaimed. “People pay a lot of money to see both of those artists all over the country. To [be able to] see them for free onstage, outdoors is just tremendous.”
Vibraphonist Ayers plays at 9 p.m. Saturday, celebrating the legacy of the late Nigerian Afrobeat innovator Fela Kuti; Wright sings at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Some of the festival’s other highlights:
Legends Celebration: “To Curtis With Love.” Ten years after Mayfield’s death, the socially conscious soul music (his “Keep on Pushin’” was a Martin Luther King Jr. favorite) by the native Chicagoan who called Atlanta home in his final years only gains resonance. Some consider his 1972 soundtrack for “Superfly” a precursor of some of today’s more topical rap and hip-hop.
Few could compose soulful harmonies like Mayfield, and even fewer could match his remarkable falsetto, but the NBAF has lined up a nice array of singers to pay tribute, including the Impressions (the group he led to prominence in the 1960s), Eddie Levert, Van Hunt, Frank McComb, Dionne Farris and Joi Gilliam. Friday, 8 p.m., $25-$65, Symphony Hall.
Philadanco. The Philadelphia-based modern dance company celebrates its 40th anniversary with two performances of four dances, including the new “By the Way of the Funk,” set to the music of George Clinton and choreographed by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of Urban Bush Women Dance Company. Thursday, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, 2 p.m., $25-$35, Rialto Center for the Arts.
Brazil Fest. Olodum, which got its start in 1970 as a Carnival group in its hometown of Salvador da Bahia in northeast Brazil and created a style of music dubbed samba reggae, gets things going at Centennial Park. Thursday, 5 p.m., free.
A “Best of Brazil” concert will feature Ivan Lins, Olodum, bossa nova singer Marsha Bittencourt and modern dance troupe Bale da Cidade, joined by American jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. Thursday, 8 p.m., $25-$65, Symphony Hall.
Even Barclay isn’t sure what to expect with the addition of Wilson to the bill.
“You never know with Cassandra,” the festival leader said when asked if the entertainer would sing Brazilian jazz. “Cassandra is going to do what Cassandra wants. But she knows Ivan Lins, she knows his music, she knows his style of music and I think she was very, very excited about the prospect of doing something with him. … I think it’s going to be an amazing evening.”
Wycliffe Gordon performing live with the 1925 silent film “Body and Soul.” The Georgia-born trombonist and a 16-piece big band play his score — which incorporates early jazz, hymns, work songs, gospel and more — for this drama by African-American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux. Controversial in its day for tweaking stereotypes and technically ahead of its time, “Body and Soul” featured the screen debut of Paul Robeson, playing a fugitive posing as a preacher in rural Georgia. Wednesday, 8 p.m., $25-$45, Rialto Center for the Arts.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The ASO’s festival-closing concert features young musicians from its Talent Development Program and the Detroit-based Sphinx Competition, both of which nurture talent in black and Latino communities. Sunday, 7 p.m., free, Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Visual arts. Louis Delsarte, the long-time Atlanta artist and Morehouse College art and humanities professor, whose 125-foot-long Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Mural was dedicated in January at the MLK National Historic Site, will be featured in a Hammonds House Museum exhibit. Other galleries hosting shows in conjunction with the NBAF include Mason Murer Fine Art, Sandler Hudson Gallery, Avisca Fine Art, Studio Clout Fine Art, Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, ACA Gallery of SCAD and the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in Madison.
Staff writer Jill Vejnoska contributed to this article.
National Black Arts Festival
Wednesday-Sunday, July 14-18. Free Centennial Park events open at 5 p.m. Thursday. Free music continues in the park until 9 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday and noon-8 p.m. Sunday. For ticketed events, purchase at the Woodruff Arts Center box office (404-733-5000) or online at www.nbaf.org.