Jazz's Big Dreamers: New Album Aimed at Getting Lawmakers to Protect Immigrants

ISSUE 22 2018 - DO NOT EVER REUSE!!! ONE TIME USE ONLY
Courtesy of John Daversa
Daversa conducted a choir of Dreamer singers on “America the Beautiful.”

"My name is Salvador. I am a Dreamer. I was brought from Mexico to the States at age 3, and I'm a clarinetist."

The words uttered by Salvador Perez Lopez, a classical clarinet player at Indiana University in Bremen, serve as the introduction to American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom, a new jazz album by John Daversa Big Band that includes over 50 artists who are "Dreamers." Brought illegally to the United States as children, Dreamers are eligible to obtain work permits and defer deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Featuring Great American Songbook selections ranging from John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" to Woody Guthrie's "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" and sprinkled with musicalized spoken-word interludes in which different Dreamers tell their personal stories, the project,  which was released Sept. 29, was spearheaded by producer Kabir Sehgal and music attorney Doug Davis.

"We were hoping to use the music for messaging purposes," says Davis. "We're using the album to get these phenomenal kids in front of people who otherwise wouldn't be aware of the issue. If lightning can strike because we hit the right notes" -- in the form of, say, a TV special -- "well, that's part of the goal."

To find the musicians, Davis, Sehgal and John Daversa, who chairs the Studio Music and Jazz Department at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music, reached out to nonprofit immigration groups through social media. Sehgal reached Perez Lopez, for instance, on Facebook Messenger after reading his New York Times essay on being a Dreamer in a time of uncertainty.

Davis contacted Abdou Doumbouya, 29, who raps under the name Caliph, on Twitter after listening to his music online.

After realizing that Doug Davis is Clive Davis' son, "I thought, 'This is not a joke,' " says Caliph, who was born in Senegal and came to the United States when he was 7. "It was important for me to spread the message and let people know what we're experiencing ... I'm an American." And performing quintessential American repertoire, he says, was "our way to say, 'We know these songs. We are part of the culture.'"

The artists, hailing from 17 countries and ranging in age from 18 to mid-30s, came together in Miami to record on a single soundstage. The album was released on indie BFM Jazz (http://bfmjazz.com). 

"Jazz music is often used as a change agent," says Sehgal, who was born stateside to Indian immigrants and has traveled to Cuba with jazz musician Arturo O'Farill. "We wanted to show that in a jazz band, your immigration status doesn't matter." It also felt like a way to be more constructive, he adds: "You can only call your congressman so many times."