A 'Dream' Come True: Album Featuring 53 Undocumented Singers and Musicians Wins 3 Grammys

John Daversa
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John Daversa, winner of Best Improvised Jazz Solo, Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, and Best Arrangement, Instrumental Or A Cappella, poses in the press room during the 61st Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 10, 2019 in Los Angeles.

The album features diverse songs ranging from “Stars and Stripes Forever” to a brassy version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” with reinvented rap lyrics.

American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom, an album by the John Daversa Big Band that features 53 undocumented Americans, won three Grammys at the Sunday (Feb. 10) awards.

At the same time that the arguments over President Trump’s proposed border wall raged on as another U.S. government shutdown deadline loomed, ten of those “Dreamers” were at the Grammys in Los Angeles, where the album won in every category for which it was nominated: best large jazz ensemble, best instrumental arrangement and best improvised jazz Solo.

“It was very important to create a platform that was poetic and artistic in bringing this issue to a higher awareness,” says John Daversa, who chairs the Studio Music and Jazz Department at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music, where the album was recorded. The project was spearheaded by producer Kabir Sehgal and music attorney Doug Davis, with Troy Carter as executive producer.

The album features ingenious arrangements of sonically and thematically diverse songs, ranging from “Stars and Stripes Forever" (which won the best instrumental arrangement award), to a brassy version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” with reinvented rap lyrics. The songs alternate with tracks on which some of the featured artists, whose families came to the U.S. from 17 different countries, tell their stories of growing up, and about their life in limbo. The timely “Don’t Fence Me In” (which won for best improvised jazz solo) is sung in Spanish and English, and appropriately features dueling instruments, at one point dissolving into cacophony.

“It was never my intention to come out with a bullhorn,” trumpet player Daversa tells Billboard. “The producers and I wanted to humanize the dreamers, and let people hear their stories. We can empathize with what’s in the newspaper, but when you know them on a personal level is when you really become affected.”

Daversa, who said he dove into the project with no specific expectations about its potential impact, gained new perspective on the importance that the recording took after the Grammy nominations came out and he spoke with some of the Dreamer participants.

“So many of them mentioned that all their life they’ve felt unsupported by the system, and this was one little glimpse of feeling like they were actually supported,” Daversa notes. “I’m sure now [after the wins] it’s times 100.”

The bandleader and teacher expressed “respect and admiration [for] the Recording Academy for what they’ve done with diversity. “I know they’ve put tremendous effort into that and its starting to show in full force,” he added. “There is a lot more work to do but they are doing the work.”

Daversa says that there are no plans to tour his Dreamers big band or do another album - so far.

“We hope that this won’t be an issue soon and the Dream Act will be passed,” he says. “But as long as it is an issue, I think we can do more work. If there needs to be another album, that’s something we can talk about.”

2019 Grammy Awards