Political activism and artistic integrity go hand in hand," said a calm and composed Salim Washington over the phone from his New York office. And at this point in his life, the 48-year-old music professor and master saxophonist ought to know.
Growing up in Detroit as the son of a minister, Washington first learned to play the trumpet during a stint in a street gang. After cleaning up and studying the musical culture in his father's parish, he went on to obtain a graduate degree at Harvard. He's taught music in prisons and schools and is a current professor at the Brookyln College Conservatory of Music. Washington has published essays on issues where politics and music intersect, including a recent piece on a post-Katrina New Orleans: "We know that this country loves black music more than it loves black people, but our representative artists should not be blindly complicit in this."
On his new album, Harlem Homecoming, Washington's extensive activist background shines through in a song he deemed "risky" but necessary. While the rest of the album features his characteristic melodic jazz intertwined with piano, oboe, viola and tuba, on "In Search of Sane Alternatives," Washington adds his own lyrics. His message is commandingly political: "Are we supposed to root for the cowboys, hide our heads in the sand and look for oil?/ We must search for sane alternatives."
"I feel a responsibility to myself and my audience to document the sounds and moods of the times we live in," Washington said. That responsibility extends off the stage as well -- Washington is currently raising money for an incarcerated friend who he believes was unjustly put in jail during a terrorist round-up--.
But politics aren't all that shape Washington's music. He's quick to point out that his "primary focus is spiritual." Says Washington, "We're all beneficiaries of the great gift of life, and that music is a celebration of life." This belief perfectly explains the immense amount of life that flows from Homecoming's every track.
Salim Washington and the Harlem Arts Ensemble will perform October 11 in Fisher-Bennett Hall's Rose Recital Hall, 3340 Walnut St. Admission is free.