A Concerto Is a Conversation (2021) - full transcript

A virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer tracks his family's lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

All right.

It's a real
pleasure to welcome

Kris Bowers,
our composer, who

has written a concerto,
“For a Younger Self.”

Welcome.

[APPLAUSE]

Can I ask a question?

All right, Granddaddy.

Can you tell me, just
what is a concerto?

So it's basically
this piece that

has a soloist and an
ensemble, an orchestra.



The two are having
a conversation.

And so sometimes
that conversation

can be this person speaking,
and now this person speaking.

Sometimes the conversation —

It's a question.

— is at the same time.

Yeah.

And it really depends on
how the composer wants to,

or how I want to frame
that conversation.

Did you ever picture yourself
doing what you're doing now?

Huh.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[APPLAUSE]

I'm very aware of the fact
that I'm a Black composer,



and lately actually I've
been wondering whether or not

I'm supposed to be in
the spaces that I'm in,

or supposed to have
gotten to the point

that I've gotten to.

Well, I can tell
you one thing.

Never think that you're
not supposed to be there.

Cause you wouldn't
be there if you

wasn't supposed to be there.

It goes back to slavery.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

My grandfather, who I found
out has cancer a little

while ago, I wanted to spend
some more time with him

and talk to him about his
life, about our family,

ask him as much as I
can before he passes.

[BELL RINGING]

Granddaddy.

Mm-hm?

Need a bit of
help with this.

Do what?

Getting this seamed
out for the show.

OK. Don't step
on the pedals.

Push it right in the corner.

OK. Wow.

OK.

We're going to make
it real handsome here.

You're going to
be ready to go.

Thank you, sir.

Growing up in the South
was quite a thing for me.

Bascom, Florida, as far
back as I can remember,

I think the plantation was
the Bowers plantation.

All 13 of you all
grew up in that house?

Mm-hm.

Wow.

How all of us stayed in
two rooms, I don't know.

We would start on
the porch singing.

And there were
people, I don't know

how they could hear it
that far, would come drive

in the front yard and
listen to us sing at night.

People in that area was,
the Blacks were Bowers,

and the whites was Beavers.

Beavers had the grocery store.

But when Dad would
walk in the store,

this kid about my
size, small kid —

How old were you
about this point?

Like how old?

I probably was 6
or 7 years old.

Oh, wow.

And he would go up to my
dad and say, what could I

get for you, boy?

That stuck with me forever.

Why are you calling
my dad a boy?

And Daddy would answer
him, sir, yes sir, no sir.

But it was something
that stayed with me

because I knew then
when I got of age I

was going to leave there.

I didn't want no
parts of the farm.

I didn't want no parts of
that part of the country.

I just wanted to leave.

Wherever I could
get a ride to,

that's where I was headed to.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

What was that process like,
hitchhiking as a Black man

in America in the 1940s?

I had to be crazy.

Now, the first place I
remember being is in Detroit.

A man picked me up.

He was saying that he could
get me a job and a place

to stay and all this.

I asked him, does
it snow there?

And he said yes.

And that was the end
of that, because I

didn't want to be any
place that was cold.

But I hitchhiked from
there to Denver, Colorado.

And I was in this
Greyhound bus station,

cause they had two
counters, white and Black.

So I could get
something to eat.

And I heard somebody say,
Los Angeles, California.

I said, that's
where I want to go.

Never heard of Los
Angeles before.

I had $27 or $28.

I didn't know how I
was going to make it,

but I knew I was
going to make it.

So I said well, I'm
going to pretend

to be an employment agency
and call around to get a job.

Wow.

I got the telephone
book, started at the A's.

A Cleaners.

And I don't think I made
more than five calls,

and the phone rang, and
it was the A Cleaners,

and they said they
needed a presser.

I got all the information.

I said, OK, I'll
send someone right out.

And that was me.

[LAUGHING]

That's where I met
your grandmother.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

How old were you when
you bought the cleaners?

I was 20.

Wow.

So within two years I
had gone from homeless

to I was in business.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

But I never could get a loan.

And I owned the place.

I said, something wrong
with this picture.

I told them I come
in for the loan,

and he said no, I
don't have anything.

And I left later, and
picked up an application,

and I mailed it in.

A few days later, I got a
call, your loan is approved.

I said, it's the
color of my skin.

I said in the South
they tell you.

In Los Angeles they show you.

From then on we started
buying property,

I would get things at
the cleaner, everything,

but nobody ever saw me.

Everything was done by mail.

People are constantly throwing up
things to stop you in life.

But you've got to know
you cannot stop me.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

My name is
Kristopher Bowers,

and I want to play “Shining
Star in Atlantic City.”

My parents decided
before I was born

they wanted me to play piano.

Literally, I think it's called
like "Piano Sampler No. 5"

that they used to put on
my mom's stomach every day.

Actually, one of the first
pieces of music I ever wrote

was on this piano.

And I remember,
you know, just

playing around
here all the time.

But we were up at
a restaurant one,

I believe it was a Sunday.

At Marie Callendar's?

Marie Callendar's.

They had a piano in
there, and I asked

the guy could you play it.

And they said yes.

I carried you over there,
and you were playing it,

and I was proud of you.

[LAUGHING]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

There aren't that
many opportunities

for young kids of color
to showcase their talents

or to interact with
other kids of color

playing music and
doing those things,

and you talking about
being my manager,

essentially, from
the very beginning.

If I didn't have
that, I probably

wouldn't have been as
confident pursuing music.

I remember — where
were you in school

at that I was up there?

What, in New York?

At Juilliard?

Juilliard?

Wherever it was,
you enjoyed it.

So that's all I was thinking.

If you enjoyed making
a living at it.

I knew that, boy.

And the winner
is Kris Bowers.

"Green Book."

[APPLAUSE]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[APPLAUSE]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

What do you think your
biggest challenge is today?

My biggest challenge today,
being honest, is my health.

It's just trying
to stay healthy.

That would be my
challenge today.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I've got a few
more years to go,

but I'm almost to the top.

[LAUGHING]

Ten more years,
I'll be at the top.

[LAUGHING]

So now I just keep trying
to do the best I can.

Yeah.

And enjoy seeing my
children and grandchildren

being successful.

That's glory in itself.

It's just something that I
hope I had a little something

to do with it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[APPLAUSE]

(SINGING) Then sings my soul,
my savior, my God to thee,

how great thou art,
how great thou art.

You did it!

You did it!

You did it!

[LAUGHING]

See, it surprised
you.

[LAUGHING]

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