Singing For Life In A Crypt In Harlem

Lawrence Brownlee performs with pianist Jason Moran in the active crypt below the historic Church of the Intercession in Harlem. (NPR)
Lawrence Brownlee performs with pianist Jason Moran in the active crypt below the historic Church of the Intercession in Harlem. (NPR)

Opera singer Lawrence Brownlee is known for portraying kings and princes. But lately he's been thinking about real people: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, to name a few.

He's been thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement and an old spiritual called "There's a Man Going 'Round Taking Names." Decades ago, singers like Paul Robeson and Lead Belly recorded it. Brownlee, with jazz pianist Jason Moran, revives the old song to tell a new story for the 21st century.

"Jason and I chose this song because we felt it accurately captures a growing sentiment that's in society today," Brownlee says. "So many senseless deaths of young African-American men."

A crypt, they thought, would be an appropriate setting to perform their version of the song. So we took our cameras and microphones — and a lovely piano — deep into the active crypt below the historic Church of the Intercession in Harlem. The 1915 structure at 155th Street and Broadway is a New York City landmark and a dramatic setting for occasional concerts, including a December 2015 recital by Brownlee.

"I know that the ashes of the parishioners of this church are here in this crypt," Brownlee explains. "You can feel the weight of death, you can feel the sting. It adequately captures the atmosphere, the somber mood that we are trying to capture with this song."

In this arrangement, an already solemn song becomes even more dark and agitated.

"What [Jason] has done with the piano part has made it build, and you feel the unrest, the turmoil, the tension that is underneath," Brownlee says. "This is something that is painful and difficult to deal with."

Set List:

"There's A Man Going 'Round Taking Names"

Credits:

Producers: Mito Habe-Evans, Tom Huizenga; Audio engineer: Josh Rogosin; Director: Mito Habe-Evans; Editor: Cameron Robert; Videographers: Mito Habe-Evans, Cameron Robert, A.J. Wilhem; Executive Producer: Anya Grundmann; Special Thanks: The Church of the Intercession, Mark and Rachel Dibner of the Argus Fund; Piano by Steinway & Sons

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