27-year-old flutist Adam Sadberry never met his grandfather, the pioneering African American journalist L. Alex Wilson (1909-1960). Sadberry learned almost everything she knows about Wilson secondhand: Wilson was three years old when her mother died, and she didn’t hear much from her grandmother before her death in 2019.
That same year, Sadberry, originally from a suburb of Houston and now living in the Twin Cities, was invited to play principal flute in the Memphis Symphony. It was a serendipitous invitation to reconnect with his grandfather’s legacy: Wilson spent most of his career in Memphis as a journalist for the Tri-State Defender, part of the Chicago Defender’s media group.
Now, that legacy is the driving force behind “Musical Journalism,” a recital program that has seen Sadberry tour around the country for the better part of a year and come to the University of Chicago. Surrounded by pieces for flute and piano Allison Loggins-Hull, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and others, “__doesn’t run,” a 25-minute commission for flute and electronics by Minnesota composer Dameun Strange, pays direct tribute to Wilson.
“The second and final chapter ends with a quote from my grandfather: ‘Any reporter worth his salt is committed to the proposition that it is his responsibility to report the news factually, under positive and negative circumstances,’ says Sadberry. “Those words touched me.”
Born in Orlando, Florida, Wilson covered major cornerstones of the burgeoning civil rights movement for the Tri-State Defender: the Montgomery bus boycotts, the integration of Little Rock Central High School, and the lynching of Emmett Till. With the help of “an influential Negro underground system” in Mississippi, Wilson not only sought out eyewitnesses to Till’s murder, but also took them north to Chicago, where they could safely testify. As a safe haven, Wilson often slept at night in black funeral homes while covering the trial.
“Before I left home and after speaking with God, if by my efforts I can in any way contribute to justice in this shameful case, whatever the cost, so be it, so be it,” Wilson wrote in a 1955 Defender article. .
He soon learned how high that price could be. On September 23, 1957, Wilson was beaten by a white mob while on duty in Little Rock. The terrible moments were captured by journalists and news cameras. A man jumped on Wilson’s back and choked him from behind; Another hit him in the head with a brick.
Wilson was there to deliver the news. But in one night it happened news, his image and name were splashed all over white and black newspapers across the country. Wilson calmly walked away from the crowd until the moment he was beaten, bending over to pick up his hat and put it back on each time he was pushed. Wilson’s superhuman bravery was recognized by civil rights activists, his colleagues, and eventually President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who is believed to have sent the National Guard to Little Rock after news of the beating was published.
Sadberry said he declined to run because he was fulfilling a promise his grandfather made to him years ago as a teacher in Florida. There, while out alone one day, he encountered a group of Klansmen. Wilson ran away to tell the tale and survived, but vowed to never run away from racism again.
“He never wanted to let fear control him. That, in a nutshell, is what white supremacy does,” says Sadberry.
Sadberry’s family believes the injuries sustained during the beating caused Wilson to rapidly decline neurologically. He died in Chicago on October 11, 1960, at the age of 51, three years after being beaten in Little Rock.
The following conversation with Sadberry has been edited and condensed.
Question: How did this musical dive into your grandfather’s life begin?
A: This journey started when I was in Memphis. Somehow, out of the blue, I was appointed principal flute of the Memphis Symphony: In 2019, I received a Facebook message inviting me to play as a guest principal. Halfway through the first season, the world began to shut down; everyone was looking at George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I realized that I came to Memphis during the modern civil rights movement, just like my grandfather’s original.
I started researching him at the local library in Memphis, where his newspaper is archived. I began to truly understand what it means to be courageous and steadfast in your sense of determination, to cultivate love for your people and to make the rest of the world reckon with what that looks like.
Question: What does your mother remember about your grandfather?
A: Not much. The only memory he ever told me about was touching a very hot stove when he was a little boy. “This isn’t a good idea, Karen,” he told her. (laughing) He internalized this. Like him, he is also a very cold-blooded person.
Q: Tell us about Dameun Strange’s new work “__isn’t running,” which honors your grandfather.
A: My management, the Concert Artists Guild, and the BMI Foundation basically said, “Hey, we love your projects; We love what you’re doing with your grandfather. “We would love to sponsor a commission.” I went through the roof and looked at the list of Black composers to see if they would be a good match.
Dameun was already invested in powerful Black historical figures, and his music seemed to go right to the heart of the matter. He writes with many electronic devices; He’s not afraid to change genres. We cooperated on basic principle. It became this five-part work, the first four chapters of which represent the standard elements of nature.
The water movement is supposed to revive my grandfather’s spirit. He reminds everyone that his presence is still felt. The second movement is Dunya, where the seeds of his activism were sown. You can feel this rising energy, like a man’s oak tree beginning to bloom and openly expressing his beliefs to the world. The third part, the weather, is about my grandfather receiving the message to continue his journey. You can hear the ringing of bells in the background, alluding to the Birmingham church bombing (1963).
After this comes the fire move, which is my personal favorite. It is completely improvised on a trap beat. He needed to tap into the anger in my grandfather’s compassion. This move was difficult for me to learn; Anger is something I suppressed a lot in my childhood. Letting it bubble is soothing.
To eat. Watch. To do.
What to eat. What to watch? What you need to live your best life… is now.
The last part is the non-standard element that represents prayer. This too is completely improvised and this is my chance to honor it directly. I’m here to channel what he did and continue that to the best of my ability. This piece is the best gift I’ve ever received.
Question: If you could talk to your grandfather today, where would you start?
A: I’ll start with the time he transitioned from being a school principal to a journalist in Florida, where he met the KKK. I would love to hear how you were able to fully believe in your ability to be a part of change. He didn’t avoid being hit with bricks in Little Rock, you know; There was an unwavering sense of determination.
If I can learn this skill, I think I will be able to continue his legacy. My grandfather had a pen. I have a flute.
7:30 p.m. Feb. 5, University of Chicago Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; free, for more information: music.uchicago.edu
Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.
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