Beyond the Blues: A Prison Oratoriois a 60-minute blockbuster oratorio Marcus Shelby is composing, arranging and orchestrating for the Marcus Shelby Orchestra and 5-part vocal ensemble. This work has been commissioned by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, and premieres on Sunday, September 27, 2015, admission-free and outdoors at Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco.

In Beyond the Blues, Shelby is working to educate people about the need to abolish this prison-industrial complex that has unfairly targeted poor women and men of color. Today, there are more black men in prison than there were in slavery at its peak. Shelby is exposing the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, and the death penalty, while exploring alternative justice, with music based on blues forms and prison songs; researching deeply, visiting prison inmates, and interviewing people in and out of ‘the system.’

For two years, Shelby has been taking his quartet to San Francisco’s juvenile hall, San Quentin and SF Women’s Prison, to share with the inmates the history of the blues, to play vintage blues records and perform some blues, to listen to them, and try to bring some hope and inspiration to those on the inside. He has made a deep impression on many.

Shelby has created an impressive repertoire of big band compositions that address significant themes in African-American history and contemporary culture. With Beyond the Blues, Marcus Shelby turns his formidable creative prowess and passion to the growing chorus of artists calling for real change in our prison system.

Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman
Marcus Shelby has received support from the Creative Work Fund and the Commmittee for Black Performing Arts at Stanford University to compose a new work on the life of Harriet Tubman. "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman" is an original secular oratorio for jazz orchestra and chorus composed and written by Marcus Shelby, based on a book of the same name by Kate Clifford Larson. The oratorio and supporting outreach and education materials will tell the compelling story of Harriet Tubman, a genuine American hero.

Shelby's oratorio will tell the remarkable story of Harriet Tubman, a woman who rose out of humble beginnings, escaped slavery and dedicated her life to challenging the grave injustices in her day. Working on the Underground Railroad, Tubman personally led 70 slaves out of bondage at great risk to her own life, and helped dozens more to freedom. During the Civil War, she led raids for the Union and served as a nurse. After Emancipation, Tubman turned her great energy toward the woman's suffrage movement, again helping to push our nation to live up to its responsibility to stand for true civil rights for all. Throughout her life, this courageous woman worked to unite American women and men of all colors and classes in a common struggle for liberty.

Shelby's oratorio is a composition for orchestra and voice and will feature the MSJO and several Bay Area vocalists. Yerba Buena Arts & Events along with The Museum of the African Diaspora will partner with Shelby in the development and presentation of this work currently set to premiere at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in Spring 2007.

Click here for more information regarding the Creative Work Fund, Yerba Buena Gardens Festival and M.o.A.D. (Museum of the African Diaspora). Click here to get more information about the Fellowship with the Committee on Black Performing
, Stanford University and the Harriet Tubman curriculum

Port Chicago
Suite for Jazz Orchestra
Composed by Marcus Shelby
Libretto by Val Hendrickson
Based on the book "The Port Chicago Mutiny" by Dr. Robert Allen
Commissioned by The Equal Justice Society

Premiered at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland
Act 1

I. Introduction
II. Opening Dance
III. Call to War
IV. Training Day
V. Mechanized Women
VI. Work Routine 1
VII. Barracks Life
VIII. Black in Blue

Act 2

IX. Work Routine 2
X. Big Liberty Blues
XI. Sweet Brownness
XII. Explosion
XIII. After
XIV. Conclusion

Port Chicago is remembered as the northern California naval base where a devastating explosion in July 1944 killed more than 320 men, predominantly African American sailors, and injured 400 others. It was the single worst disaster on U.S. soil during World War II. The sailors objected to the racial discrimination and manifestly unsafe working conditions at the base where only blacks were assigned to loading ammunition on ships. When 258 of the sailors protested in a work stoppage the Navy called it mutiny, setting in motion the largest mutiny trial in U.S. Navy history. In a sensational court martial 50 young black sailors were unjustly convicted. Thurgood Marshall, then special counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, flew to San Francisco to investigate the case. He charged that the young sailors were being made scapegoats for the conditions the Navy allowed at the base. Following the military trial, Marshall filed a strong appeal brief on behalf of the sailors, highlighting the racial discrimination at the base and in the trial. Although his appeal was rejected by the Navy Judge Advocate General, the public pressure generated by a nationwide campaign in support of the sailors compelled the Navy to revamp its policies and begin the process of desegregation—a major civil rights victory. Although the imprisoned sailors were later released under a general amnesty after the war, their mutiny convictions have never been overturned. The injustice of their convictions cries out for redress, and reminds us of the price paid by many unsung heroes in the struggle for civil rights and justice.

According to Marcus Shelby, “The black sailors who lost their lives on July 17th, 1944 in a massive explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Weapon’s Base were true, if unwitting, American heroes. The explosion drew investigation, which revealed Jim Crow-like racial segregation in the naval forces, involving disadvantaged, dangerous, and ultimately deadly working conditions for black sailors. In response to the public exposure of these truths, the Navy quietly desegregated its ranks; in 1948, Harry Truman desegregated all U.S. armed forces. Ironically, the Port Chicago tragedy revealed and corrected a grave injustice, and brought America closer to equal justice for all, the very foundation of true democracy. Indeed, these sailors’ lives were not lost in vain. “Port Chicago” the composition is an abstract representation that chronicles the story of these African American sailors. It pays homage to the men and to the sacrifices they made for the moral development of their country. It also honors the survivors—those who have had to bear the burden of history’s continuing injustice. “Port Chicago” hopes to again shed light on those injustices, and to join the efforts to exonerate the survivors. “

Brown Dreams
Tone Poem for Jazz Orchestra
Composed by Marcus Shelby
Text and Spoken Word by Paul Flores
Commissioned by Meet the Composer and Youth Speaks
Premiere performance: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts October 5, 2003
Performed by The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra and Paul Flores

“Brown Dreams” is a tone poem for jazz orchestra based on the poem of the same name written by Paul Flores. The Compostion was written during the summer of 2003 and premiered at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. “Brown Dreams” is the story of a Mexican immigrant named “Francisco” who was convinced by an army recruiter to join the U.S. Military as a way to receive his American citizenship. After serving in Iraq for a year, Francisco is killed in the line of duty; all of his dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen coming to a tragic end.

"Brown Dreams" begins the night before Francisco leaves for Iraq. He spends this night with his friends, dreaming of becoming an American when he returns from the war. The composition follows Francisco's emotional journey of joining the army
and leaving his family to fight in Iraq, and chronicles his hopes of becoming a US citizen. The running time of Brown Dreams is 17 minutes.

"This is a story about a brown dream sinking to the bottom of the Tigris Euphrates. This is a brown dream..."

Listen to a clip of Brown Dreams
Read the text of the poem

Midtown Sunset
Composed by Marcus Shelby
Text by Langston Hughes
Spoken Word by Peter Macon
Based on selected works of the great American painter, Romare Bearden
Premiered at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, February 2004
Commissioned by San Francisco Performances
Performed by The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra  

I. Arriving at the Space part 1
II. Slappin' 7th Avenue with the Soles of my Shoe
III. Blue Monday
IV. The Block
V. At the Savoy
VI. Background for Ivy
VII. Midtown Sunset
VII. Arriving at the Space part 2

"Midtown Sunset" is a tone poem for jazz orchestra. It is based on the artwork of Harlem renaissance painter Romare Bearden and the poetry of Langston Hughes. It is a jazz suite in 8 parts. Part of the celebrated “Harlem Renaissance” movement, Bearden's work portrays the vibrant life of African Americans in their urban context. The poetry of Langston Hughes parallels Bearden’s visual narratives. The composition is inspired primarily by Bearden's collage work .Choreographer Pat Taylor, the artistic director of the Jazz Antiqua Music and Dance Ensemble, conceived the original concept for the collaboration. The original composition was written for a 7-piece ensemble in 1993 and with the help of a generous commission from San Francisco Performances, Midtown Sunset was re-orchestrated for jazz orchestra during the fall of 2003 and winter of 2004. It was premiered at the San Francisco Modern Art Museum in February 2004. The running time is 35 minutes.


Copyright 2006-2008, Marcus Shelby, all rights reserved.
For permission to use photographs please contact Scott Chernis.