Watch the George Floyd-inspired “The Ultimate Litmus” featuring Wynton Marsalis

The election may be over, but the people and causes that pushed for change are still making their voices heard. “The Ultimate Litmus” was written by Carlos Henriquez and Jenny Hersch, in response to the protests sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd. The pair have produced an accompanying music video for the song, featuring Jazz at Lincoln Center Managing and Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis on both vocals and trumpet.

Hersch says of the song,

I wrote a verse of poetry on June 2. It just poured out. On June 9, I wrote verses two and three. I have poetic thoughts but I don’t often write them down. Carlos Henriquez (bassist and arranger, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) and I have worked on several projects together over the past few years involving music for kids. I sent him the lyrics and asked him to write a brass band arrangement.

Jenny Hersch

Using a New Orleans street sound seemed to be the best choice given the circumstances behind the lyrics, with emotion and energy being simultaneously expressed.

I gave the vocals a try in a rhythmic spoken-word style over Carlos’s MIDI file and immediately called Bryan R. Smith, a photographer friend in NYC to ask for the use of the protest pictures he took in New York, Washington D.C. and Minnesota. Carlos then called Dwight Adams (trumpet), Jeffrey Miller (trombone), Ibanda Ruhumbika (tuba) and Ali Jackson (percussion) to record their parts from home.

Jenny Hersch

With the track laid down, Carlos played a rough audio mix of “The Ultimate Litmus” for Wynton Marsalis in early September. Marsalis was moved by the project and offered to recorded the vocal track and a trumpet solo, which he did in early October.

the ultimate litmus
Protesters walk across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on June 6, 2020 in New York. Photo by Bryan Smith

The video was assembled by a team of recent Berklee College graduate Alex Leiva (sound) and Shannon Magnaldi (video), a recent Massachusetts College of Art grad. “The Ultimate Litmus” features Dwight Adams and Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, Jeffery Miller (trombone), Ibanda Ruhumbika (tuba), and Ali Jackson (percussion).

Lyrics for The Ultimate Litmus, by Jenny Hersch

A bottomless pit of pandemonium
A breaking point?
A tipping point?
No quick fix outcome

A state of being?
A state of mind?
Is it an absence of mind?
Where is the presence of mind?

Confusion …. Delusion
No illusions
No stop gap brawl
In it for the long haul

A faction reaction
No abstraction
Identity …. Integrity
Conformity …. Community

Relationships based on tolerance not trust?
Is it them or is it US?

No contest
24    7
With no rest

Pros and cons
A long list at best
Overwhelmed by stress
In need of a life vest

Constitution …. Restitution
Persecution …. Absolution
Abusers …. Accusers
For the foreseeable future

Civic values
Civic virtue
Reeling …. kneeling
Rail against the curfew

Fleet of feet
Running from a browbeat
Is a one way street

Who will bear witness
The ultimate litmus
A test of wills
What values instilled

No justice
No peace
May wonders
NEVER cease

Is gaining traction
Words are not enough
Need satisfaction

Lines of questioning
Is what we’re expecting
Fear of the unknown
Will compassion be shown

What is the hold up
We’re all thunderstruck
No sit down strike
Throngs are running amok

Painted into a corner
No clear path forward
Blurred on the periphery
The slope is very slippery

Tears are to be expected
We’re so disconnected
Celebrate our differences
While honoring our preferences

Human rights
Are bona fide
Like clockwork
Like predicting the tides

400 years
Of victimization
We need a DO-OVER
In this nation

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