Long Career in Jazz and Pandemic Experience Shape Gloria Galante's New Suite for Jazz Harp
A year ago, Gloria Galante was stuck at home, and, like many, feeling powerless in the face of a pandemic-induced quarantine and growing anger as the details surrounding George Floyd's death came to light. But she wasn't powerless. Not totally. She had a harp, and the compulsion to set her feelings to music. Emotions like anger and frustration can be great fuel for art. Galante's new suite of music for harp, tenor saxophone, and bass- Style de Verioullage: The Lockdown Suite-is stirring testimony to this.
"I said, 'You know, this time is a gift," Galante said of what motivated the composition. "I wasn't always sure what, but I knew I had to say something."
But back up. A suite for jazz harp? Outside of Alice Coltrane-who's relevant to the story here- how many jazz harpists can you name?
How Gloria Galante came to the harp will be familiar to anyone who's taken up this heavenly sounding and ostensibly unwieldy instrument. "Orchestra was ready to start in two weeks and there were only three instruments left," said Galante, of her introduction to the harp at Cardinal Dougherty High School. "It was trombone, tuba, or the harp. The harp is very similar to piano, so that's why I chose the harp."
Originally trained in classical piano, Galante's teacher would reward her diligence with the classical repertoire with jazz, a classic carrot and stick approach. By the time she took up the harp, she'd decided she wanted to eat dessert before her vegetables, or at least allocate the portions more equally. That meant seeking out jazz on its home turf, in bars and clubs, on this most ethereal of instruments. Audiences and fellow musicians would soon find this made for more than compelling cognitive dissonance.
It was a jazz jam hosted by WRTI's Bob Perkins at the old Blue Note on Limekiln Pike in West Oak Lane that would become her Philly jazz career's inciting incident.
"I walked in there with this big harp and they were nervous it would get damaged," Galante recalled. "So they said, 'Let her get on, she'll do her song and that'll be it.' Well that song turned into a set-and then we became a band."
Leading the band that night at the (Philly) Blue Note was Philly Hometown Hero, bassist Tyrone Brown, who, on the strength of her performance, recruited Galante to join his band, Kusangala.
The rest, as they say, is history. And she's shared stages with musicians whom history will prominently document: Diana Ross and Luther Vandross and Frank Sinatra; jazz royalty and Philly icons like Warren Oree, Monette Sudler, and Odean Pope.
Galante calls Pope, along with Oree and Brown and violinist Diane Monroe, one of her most influential jazz mentors. Colleagues for nearly a quarter century, their first project together was 1998's Pope-Galante, a pairing that was facilitated and encouraged by Alice Coltrane. Galante struck up a cherished friendship with the harpist, pianist, spiritualist, and second wife of John Coltrane.
"This was back in the day where we'd write letters to one another," Galante said. "And any time she would come to Philly, my harp was always offered to her. Alice and I had a really nice friendship."
Meanwhile, the friendship and musical partnership between Galante and Pope, whose early recordings drew favorable comparisons to Alice's husband, has only grown stronger. When Pope was awarded a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to produce an entire program of original compositions, Galante was part of the ensemble that created Sounds of the Circle (2019).
Recently, Pope has returned the favor, joining Galante and yet another Philly jazz legend, bassist Lee Smith, on a multi-movement original piece composed by Galante. Style de Verioullage: The Lockdown Suite, was conceived and executed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We're quarantined, and there's a pandemic, and we had family members die, and I wasn't going to let the moment pass," said Galante, who was inspired, first, to write something to honor mentors like Pope and Brown.
Then came the social justice movements that sprung from George Floyd's death, and the piece took on added gravitas. "When the George Floyd killing happened, it made my blood boil and it broke my heart. So the third movement became dedicated to [George Floyd] and the protests that followed."
That third movement, "Manifestation Couture," is WRTI's NPR Live Sessions Video of the Week for the week beginning May 24, and it features Galante on harp, Odean Pope on tenor saxophone, and Lee Smith on bass.
Galante, a career educator who founded the harp program at West Chester University over 30 years ago-a program over which she continues to preside-not only believes in the power of music to educate but also in music's therapeutic power. A licensed music therapist, she's taken part in studies that prove the efficacy of music a legitimate healing modality.
She believes in music's potential to foster empathy and perhaps heal social wounds, too. "It takes people to move mountains, but music can certainly bridge gaps and allow people to share love and share feelings," Galante said. "I think that things have opened up for the conversation, and I'm just hoping that everybody will try to do their part. And this is our little part."