Commentary: How a conversation on a train turned into a song about Baltimore

Gabriel Kahane, Joshua Redman present the city as a hometown and as essential to America’s story

Published 9/17/2023 12:52 p.m. EDT, Updated 9/22/2023 5:00 p.m. EDT

Musicians Joshua Redman (L) and  Gabriel Kahane.

As Gabriel Kahane wrote songs for his 2018 album “Book of Travelers,” he drew from his experiences on a train trip throughout the country. The trip included an hourslong conversation with a young Black man from Baltimore. During the conversation, the young man, who had gone out West to work as a national park trail crew leader, talked about his life and about why he needed to make a trip back home.

After that encounter, Kahane, the widely acclaimed composer, singer and pianist who is currently creative chair of the Oregon Symphony, wrote and recorded the song “Baltimore” for “Book of Travelers.” Now, saxophonist Joshua Redman, one of the most acclaimed artists working in jazz, has released an instrumental version of “Baltimore” as a single from his new album “where are we.”

Kahane had boarded a train at New York’s Penn Station the morning after the 2016 presidential election. He didn’t take his phone with him as he traveled 8,980 miles aboard six trains through 31 states. He spoke with as many as 80 strangers, most of whom he met over meals in dining cars. He consumed no news other than what he was told by his fellow passengers.

One purpose of the trip, Kahane told me, was to see and hear firsthand how Americans were feeling about themselves and their country. The trip was an opportunity, he said, to learn more about people from all kinds of places in a way that would go beyond media representations and the divisions hardened by Donald Trump’s candidacy and when he was elected president. He sought to consider the experiences of people beyond the “classic urban/rural divide” and racial divisions that he said are fueled by the politically powerful and the media.

In writing “Baltimore,” Kahane used the name “Jason” to represent that young man’s story.

“I met this extraordinary guy from Baltimore on the train — the Southwest Chief from L.A. to Chicago.”

The young man talked about his friends and the life and community he had left behind in Baltimore. He knew he needed to go home, but still spoke about the ambivalence he was feeling, Kahane said.

“At 16, all of his friends had made a lot of money selling drugs,” Kahane said about his fellow passenger. The young man worked at a crab shack for a time. Then, he decided the place for him was out West, working in a national park. He landed a job and went on to become a leader of national park trail crews, whose job is to maintain the park trails and keep them safe.

A line from “Baltimore” evokes “six years of back country trails to the lake, machete and snake.” It’s a place a world away from the streets of Baltimore.

A young Black man working as a trail crew foreman at a national park in the West isn’t a common sight. Kahane said that young man’s experience serves as a reminder to “not reduce people into boxes, into categories.”

“Jason” was going home to mourn the loss of a friend, one of those other young men who once had some money and whose life would take him in a direction that would be cut short by violence.

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I got the news on the satellite phone:

Jason come home, Jason, dear

Back to Baltimore

The tallboy convenience store

The indifferent, the endless war

And I know what that is

And I know what that is

And I don’t need it anymore

But I have to go home

Kahane told me he was gratified to learn that Redman, with whom he has previously worked, had recorded “Baltimore” for “where are we.”

The album is Redman’s debut on the revered Blue Note jazz record label. Along with “Baltimore,” the album comprises renditions of classic popular songs, jazz standards and original compositions by Redman.

In making the album, it was vital to have a connection with the songs, Redman told me. “They’re about the idea of ‘place’ in America.” The songs were chosen and composed to reflect the American Dream and the romantic ideal of America along with the reality. He told me he considers the album a celebration and a critique.

Part of conceiving “where are we” was “trying to grapple with this kind of disconnect between the American Dream and American reality,” he said. “It’s not a political album,” he told me. Music “can deal with hard truths” while remaining affirmative, he added.

So the romantic and nostalgic elements are reflected in his selection of the Frank S. Perkins and Mitchell Parris composition “Stars Fell on Alabama,” about a couple’s nighttime encounter. The hard realities of America’s history are reflected in “Alabama,” written by John Coltrane in tribute to the four little Black girls murdered when their Birmingham church was bombed in 1963.

Redman wrote the lyrics to “After Minneapolis,” influenced by the murder of George Floyd as well as the deaths of other Black Americans, including Breonna Taylor and Freddie Gray, while in police custody or at the hands of police. Thoughts about them were “in the background as the theme emerged for the record.”

Redman said a lot of his motivation for choosing to include “Baltimore” on his album was musical.

“I’ve been a fan of Gabriel’s for quite some time,” he said. He also said the elements of harmony and tonality immediately drew him to the song, which he said is a great vehicle for improvisation. “This is the kind of stuff that jazz musicians can geek out on,” he said.

Redman said his impressions about Baltimore are influenced by the city’s rich jazz history, including the legacy of performances by the music’s leading figures at concerts presented by the Left Bank Jazz Society. He said he also identifies the city with the music because artists such as Cab Calloway, Eubie Blake, Chick Webb and Billie Holiday were born or raised in the city.

Like so many others, he became further intrigued by Baltimore after watching the HBO series, “The Wire.” While fully realizing the show is fiction, he said the quality of the series had an enduring impact on him.

His shows in Baltimore have been too infrequent, he said. But an appearance early in his career made a lasting impression.

He was joined by other emerging jazz musicians for a 1993 engagement at the New Haven Lounge. Now closed, it’s a place well-remembered by Baltimore jazz fans, once tucked away in the old Northwood Plaza in the northeastern part of the city.

“It wasn’t the fanciest place in the world, but it was soulful,” he recalled.

Perhaps Joshua Redman just given us a new slogan for Baltimore.

Mark Williams is The Baltimore Banner’s Opinion Editor.