Marcus Shelby spoke to us about the music, community, and the challenges facing artists in the Bay Area


Tell us about the music you'll be presenting at NPP's next show.

We will be presenting 3 different works on Sunday at the African American Art and Cultural Complex. The theme is Ellington. His birthday is actually April 29th and we will be celebrating the legacy of Duke.


Our first presentation will be selections from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's masterpiece, "The Far East Suite." A nine-part musical celebration of the Ellington orchestra's state department tour of the Middle East and Far East from 1963–1965. They toured countries such as Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, and were scheduled to play in several more countries, but had to cancel after the assassination of president Kennedy that forced the band to return to the states. They also later toured Japan (the only Far East country actually). Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composed a suite of music that represented their travels to the Far and Middle East that includes some of Duke and Strayhorn's most well-known compositions such as "Isfahan".


Our second presentation will be several compositions by Duke Ellington that represent various eras of his music. Duke had 5 really great eras and we will present music that ranges from the 1920s (Cotton Club) to his later music in the 1960s. 


Our third presentation will be several compositions from the play "Isfahan Blues" which is the score I composed for the play opening on May 2 at the African American Art and Cultural Complex. The play was written by Torgange Yeghiazarian (Golden Thread Theater) and is about the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the Middle East in 1963. Torange's parents owned a music club in Isfahan during this time period and the play imagines Billy Strayhorn visiting the club and going on a wild unexpected journey with the club owner's wife (Torange's mother). Torange's mother was a famous actress in Iran (true story) and plays the leading role in our play along with Peter Calendar, one of the leading actors and directors in the Bay Area. We will feature several of the songs from the original score. 

Why is it important for you to play in the community?

It is important for me to play in the community because that is where I have committed my work to uplift, inform, inspire, and celebrate. I come from "the community" and learned that music and art can help build the intellectual and spiritual fiber that bonds and binds a community. Music and art reflect the times and issues that the community must confront, therefore providing a creative and soulful perspective to peace and mutual respect.

What is the biggest challenge facing professional artists like yourself in the Bay Area?

There are many challenges facing professional artists in the Bay Area. Some of those deal with affordable housing and quality of life. Some deal with funding opportunities to present and produce their work. Some deal with a changing artistic landscape where venues no longer present live performances. All in all, these are typical challenges that have always been part of the reality of being an artist. I do believe the Bay Area is a wonderful place to create and collaborate and that most artists with a vision and commitment to that vision will find ways to have their voice heard. 

Parting thoughts?

I'm thankful to the Neighborhood Performance Project, Jazz in the Neighborhood, Intersection for the Arts, the African American Art and Cultural Complex, and all the supporters of the work you all do to keep music in the community. I'm also thankful for the respectful and wonderful treatment each organization has shown towards the artists you have worked with . It's truly an honor to perform for you all. Lastly, it's a great honor to have my Community Music Center Teen Big Band Orchestra performing on April 26 opening for us for this special concert. The CMC Teen Big Band Orchestra has been together for 2 years. It is a free program that happens every Tuesday from 4:30–6:30 PM at the Community Music Center in the Mission. We study Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams, John Coltrane, and much much more.