World premiere of new arrangement of 'Hymn to Freedom' in Waterloo
April 27, 2019
For almost two decades, the late Oscar Peterson’s ‘Hymn to Freedom’ composition was Oliver Jones’ theme song.
“I always told Oscar I played this tune much more than he did and he should be paying me the royalties,” joked Jones at an event in Waterloo on March 22 to celebrate the world premiere of a new arrangement of the inspirational song.
The musical prodigy, who recorded his own rendition of the song in the 1980s, said the lyrics appealed to him the first time he heard them.
“I played it in about 70 European cities and it was always well received,” Jones, who was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1993, pointed out. “And I always ensured that audiences knew that it was Oscar’s composition. I remember playing in Sweden at a concert and meeting a Black singer from the United States who was a choir teacher living there. They had the lyrics of the song in five languages and when she learnt that I was from Montreal, she asked if I could play the song with them. That was because of Oscar and his worldwide appeal.”
Jones, who started playing the piano at age three, grew up in the same Little Burgundy neighbourhood in Montreal as Peterson and his family that included Peterson’s sister – the late Daisy Sweeney – who was the octogenarian’s music teacher.
‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ – considered the Black national anthem – is sung to open most Black History Month celebrations in North America.
Written as a poem by American author & civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, the hymn was adopted and promoted by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
After years of using the hymn at their Black History Month events in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, retired nurse and community organizer Lauris DaCosta figured it was time for change.
“Why not have a version portraying Black Canadian history”? she thought.
‘Hymn to Freedom” immediately came to mind and DaCosta wrote letters to award-winning author Lawrence Hill, historian Dr. James Walker and Jones seeking their opinion.
“My phone rang one day and to my surprise, the caller on the other end identified himself as Oliver Jones,” she said. “We talked and he thought it was a good idea worth pursuing. He forwarded a copy of the letter to Peterson’s widow (Kelly) who endorsed the idea and offered to give whatever support she could. These endorsements gave me the motivation I needed to vigorously pursue the project.”
Jamaican-born DaCosta, who moved to Waterloo in 1997 after she and her husband retired, contacted Wilfrid Laurier University Professor Dr. Carol Duncan who put her in touch with faculty member Dr. Lee Willingham who is a past president of the Ontario Music Educators’ Association.
Duncan and Walker provided academic consultation for the project whose planning team also includes videographer Earl McCluskie, proVisionIP founding partner Mark Church, Congress of Black Women Waterloo chapter president Marcia Smellie, Waterloo Region Mass Choir founding director Darren Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo Multicultural Centre Chief Executive Officer Lucia Harris, dramaturgist Lisbeth Haddad and Juno-award winning Toronto Mass Choir musical director Corey Butler who did the new choral arrangement.
Jones and his wife of 61 years – Monique Leclerc – travelled from Montreal for the new arrangement of the ‘Hymn to Freedom’ world premiere at First United Church in Waterloo.
“I felt it is of paramount importance that we continue to highlight and share our stories and shared history,” said the 83-year-old Jones who underwent triple bypass surgery four years ago. “The ‘Hymn to Freedom’ project will do just that…It gives me great pleasure to lend my support to this endeavor and I know the resulting narrative will be an illuminating glimpse into the rich and varied stories of Black communities in Canada.”
The program featured a piano duet on DVD of Jones and Peterson performing ‘Hymn to Freedom’, drumming by Gerima Harvey , vocal presentations, a medley of spirituals by a mass choir and speeches by Jean Augustine and Dr. Carl James.
“Tonight’s celebration captures and highlights the iconic personalities that have inspired us through the years,” said James who is the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community & Diaspora at York University. “We are reminded that it is an ongoing journey and that we need to constantly work at asserting our presence in Canada and to help create a more equitable society for future generations. There is not a history that can be told of Canada that doesn’t include Blacks. It is Canadian history.”
DaCosta, who came to Canada in 1957, said the project will conclude with the production of a commemorative video that will be available for distribution to schools, libraries and communities across Canada.
“Placing images from Canadian Black history to the music of Oscar Peterson is only a beginning,” she said. “It’s a reminder that there is a rich and proud history to be known, accepted, respected and taught in our schools. We must know the history, stand tall and let the determination of our ancestors guide us.”
Donations can be made online at www.kwmc.on.ca/hymn-tofreedom.
In 1986 at the largest world international festival for children’s choirs ever organized in Finland, 10 choirs from around the world performed their version of ‘Hymn to Freedom’. The Deutsche Welle Choir of Fifty Voices performed the song in 2000 in Germany when Peterson was awarded the UNESCO International Music Prize.
Two years later, Peterson’s trio along with several Canadian artists performed ‘Hymn to Freedom’ at the conclusion of a gala tribute concert to Queen Elizabeth II during her Golden Jubilee celebrations in Canada.
The hymn was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008.