‘It’s all surreal’ Lansing native Melissa White wins Grammy Award


Lansing native Melissa White can expect to receive a golden gramophone with her name engraved on it come April.

“I have never been in more disbelief in my life,” she said. “It’s all surreal.”

White and her internationally acclaimed string ensemble, the Harlem Quartet, played a key role in “Passion for Bach and Coltrane,” released in September. Blending the spoken word with jazz, classical and sacred music, the ambitious suite earned the award for Best Classical Compendium at the 66th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 4.

White grew up in Lansing and attended Gardner Elementary and Everett High School until she left to study at Interlochen Arts Academy at 16. She is familiar to Lansing music lovers as a two-time violin soloist with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, in 2011 and 2018.

You may have run into her at Horrocks Farm Market when she was in town for a family visit or heard her solo violin on the soundtrack of Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed horror movie “Us.” Some years before that, she might have taken your ticket at Celebration Cinema.

At a daytime awards ceremony on Feb. 4, livestreamed but not telecast, White watched in disbelief as big names like Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and late jazz pianist Chick Corea flashed by on a big screen, competing in the same category.

“I was excited enough to see my own name on the screen, thinking there was no way we would win,” she said. Imani Winds, an ensemble familiar to local music lovers from several concerts and residencies at Michigan State University, shared the award with the Harlem Quartet, distinguished 88-year-old poet A.B. Spellman and a jazz trio.

White’s hands were poised to clap for anyone else when the image of “Passion” flashed on the screen.

“My jaw dropped, and I lost my breath,” she said.

The next 30 seconds went by in a blur. Forsaking gravity, burly clarinetist Mark Dover of Imani Winds bounded down the aisle, kicking his heels like a leprechaun. Alone on stage, he frantically gestured to the rest of the group to hurry up and join him. Winners only get 45 seconds on stage at the daytime ceremony.

Monica Ellis, bassoonist and founding member of Imani Winds, spoke exultantly for the group: “We did this, y’all! We did this!”

“What you see when people are that excited and that surprised — it’s real,” White said. “You don’t have the breath to talk. It’s just overwhelming. It’s the most excited I’ve ever been.”

White exchanged texts with her parents back in Lansing throughout the ceremony and FaceTimed them as soon as it was over. A hometown celebration with family and close friends is in the works for April, when White is due to judge the Barbara Wagner Chamber Music Competition at the MSU College of Music.

The day after the ceremony, White hustled back to San Francisco, where she was in the middle of a residency at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The residency was on her schedule long before she got nominated in September, but after the glitz of the Grammys, Chamber Music Tuesday was an adjustment.

“I had to concentrate so hard,” she said. “I’m running on emotional fumes.” She was due to return home to New York, and collapse in a heap, later in the week.

White is proud of her role in “Passion for Bach and Coltrane,” a project that carries more weight than most albums, classical or otherwise.

At its heart is the alert mind and searching verses of Spellman, a poet, music critic and mainstay of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Spellman’s account of the passion of Christ, in the tradition of Bach’s Passions, is at the core of the album, but it’s also an unabashed love letter to the music of Bach and jazz giant John Coltrane. The words “passion for” could be interpreted two ways: “This is a passion of Christ, dedicated to Bach and Coltrane,” or simply, “I dig both Bach and Coltrane.”

Although they were separated by centuries, Bach and Coltrane were both driven by an incandescent spirituality.

“It’s a genius idea,” White said. “It would have been cool to see these two different worlds get to meet.”

Spellman describes himself sitting in a hotel room in “dead night,” writing poetry and listening to Bach on the radio, “each note full and bright, a brilliant footprint on the dark.”

Later, he listens to a different station and hears a tune by Coltrane. Again, his book drops from his hand. “Now it’s your line that opens and opens, and I’m flying that way again — same sky, different moon.”

Guided by the light of spirituality, composer Jeff Scott’s music pivots deftly between idioms.

“Psalm” is a massive blossom of harmony with melodic petals that recalls Coltrane’s most devotional tracks.

“Jeff did it so creatively, with harmonic progressions that give that feeling of mournfulness,” White said. “It’s challenging to play, and it took a lot of time to practice, but that speaks to life. Life takes practice.”

The string quartet plays a crucial role in “Manual for a Crucifixion,” a harrowing tone poem that explicitly ties the humiliation and suffering of Christ to modern-era lynchings. As the quartet plays an aching dirge, Spellman’s verse suddenly turns ice cold. He channels an imaginary manual guiding sadists in the maximum infliction of suffering: “Do not nail the hands to the crossbeams. They will break free, and then you’ve got a mess.”

Spellman and the musicians take you through it all, slow and steady, all the way to the other side.

Later, Spellman delivers a master class in facing death. “Groovin’ Low” is his paean to jazz, a fine whiskey blended with a realistic acknowledgment of his 88 years.

“My swing is more mellow these days,” he says. “My eyes still close when the rhythm locks.”

Recording and performing “Passion,” White found that Spellman the man was as stalwart and supportive as Spellman the poet.

“You know you’re with a man who is very wise, who lived his life as an educated Black man in America, who has so many stories and is so loving and kind,” White said. “Getting to be with him, he’s like a loving grandfather. You become smarter and better.”

At the Grammys, the elated “Passion” musicians, in their impossibly high heels and Chanel outfits, marveled at Spellman’s sensible shoes and calm demeanor.

“You’re so wise,” White told him. “You’re still you.”

“Oh yes, darling,” he answered. “Always be you.”


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