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Trumpeter Jason Palmer says Breonna Taylor’s name with a musical tribute

Jason Palmer
Jason Palmer

The trumpeter Jason Palmer has just premiered a collaborative project in tribute to Breonna Taylor, the Black 26-year-old EMT from Louisville, Ky., who was the innocent victim of a police shooting in her own apartment in March.

As soon as Palmer posted his YouTube playlist, “Justice for Breonna Taylor Duos in Dedication,” he began to receive messages from people who were unaware of Taylor’s story until they watched the tribute. That’s the whole point of the project, he says.

“It’s just a little thing I feel I’ve been called to do in this world,” he says.

Palmer, an in-demand musician who has played with Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Ravi Coltrane, and many others, teaches at Berklee College of Music. For 15 years he has led the house band at Wally’s Cafe.

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To honor Taylor’s life, he created a piece of music that, when notated, spells out her name. Each variation on the piece — there are a dozen, with more to come — is accompanied by a stop-motion video that reveals the letters of her name.

Palmer says he was inspired by a short video made by his friend saxophonist John Ellis. They have both played in Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society big band; on tour, they’ve been roommates. Ellis’s short video spells the name of George Floyd.

In Palmer’s work, each letter of Taylor’s name is followed by eight seconds in which the trumpeter’s guest collaborators (among them several members of the Berklee community) contribute improvisations. The eight seconds represent the number of bullets that killed Taylor. After her name is spelled out, the composer left 26 additional seconds — one for each year of her life — for his colleagues to fill, however they saw fit.

“I just asked them to play the way they felt about the whole situation,” Palmer says. “The magic of improvisation is you get all of the spectrum.” In those brief solos, he hears emotions ranging “from joy to sorrow” — from mourning and introspection to the kind of celebration of life heard at a New Orleans funeral march.

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Palmer, 41, grew up in North Carolina. In his youth, he saw the Ku Klux Klan marching with a police escort. But he also attended one of the state’s first integrated public high schools.

“I kind of saw the best and worst of what society could be in terms of relations,” he says.

The pandemic, he says, has brought some unexpected benefits along with the adversity. The expansion of creative time means that Black Lives Matter protesters have been able to maintain their message longer, and in more expressive ways, than they might have otherwise.

“I think it allowed a window of permanent gestures for reform to stay open a bit more for things to change, for a more equitable society,” he says.

But the virus clearly has been no friend to musicians who thrive on live performance. While participating in a recent streaming concert, Palmer realized just how much he’s missing his weekends at Wally’s.

“I’ll tell you, practice chops and gig chops are not the same,” he says. “There’s no substitute for playing with people.”

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.