James McBride was a professional saxophonist for decades before he took up writing. His most recent work of historical fiction, The Good Lord Bird, was the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013. His landmark memoir, The Color of Water, was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years.

The Good Lord Bird tells the story of a boy named Henry Shackleford, an enslaved 12-year-old who winds up traveling with John Brown during the abolitionist’s most tumultuous years. “Many books have been written about [Brown], but I wanted to write a book that people like me would read,” he tells Kurt Andersen. While faithful to the outlines of history, McBride’s account of Brown offers ample comic relief. “He was seen as a nut. He’s still seen as a nut,” McBride explains. “I don’t want to write depressing books. Books cost a lot of money. If people are going to invest that kind of money in your work, they should at least be moved to some semblance of happiness, even if briefly.”

Like McBride, the young protagonist loves to break out into song. McBride created a catalogue of fictional songs for him, but also relies heavily on the spirituals of the era. McBride and the Good Lord Bird Band is a gospel jazz quintet that will perform original and historical spirituals interspersed with brief, lyrical readings from the novel.

The Good Lord Bird Band consists of Show Tyme Brooks on drums and vocals, Trevor Exter on bass and vocals, Adam Faulk on piano and vocals, Keith Robinson on guitar and vocals, and McBride on saxophone and vocals.

Co-presented by Seattle Arts & Lectures and the Seattle Times.






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