To meet Elmer Gibson is to meet a musician who has embraced every musical opportunity that life has presented him. Gibson began playing classical piano at the age of three, went on to learn trumpet at the age of ten, and focused his attention on jazz at the age of twenty-one while studying piano under Irwin Gelber. By the age of twenty-four, Gibson had formed his own jazz trio. Gibson was also an avid composer, and when his jazz trio performed at the Villanova Jazz Festival, it was almost entirely his original compositions that they played.
A trademark of Gibson’s music is its inclusion of African rhythms. Very early in his musical pursuits, before he had even formed his first jazz trio, Gibson joined the Starletta Depar African Jazz group that featured a male and female dancing to jazz music. It was through Gibson’s participation in this group that he was introduced to African rhythms. According to Gibson, once he gained an understanding of what makes rhythms distinctly African, he was able to reproduce those rhythms in his own compositions and performances.
The Villanova Jazz Festival was the first time he performed one of his African influenced songs publicly. After the festival, one of the judges approached him wanting to know more about the distinct rhythm heard in the piece. Gibson explained to the judge, as he continues to explain to inquiring audiences, that the distinct African sound of his rhythms comes from his use of 6 over 4.
One must leap forward in Gibson’s story—past years of touring the world with renowned jazz musicians—to discover how he came to compose a piece with African origins for the Philharmonic Association’s very own youth string quartet, the United Strings of Color. Gibson moved to North Carolina to pursue a master’s degree in Architecture from NC State University, and came into contact with our founder and former artistic director Hugh Partridge around the year 1980. Upon encountering each other at a performance venue, Gibson and Partridge began to discuss music. Partridge asked Gibson whether he had composed for strings before, and Elmer replied no. Hugh then gave Gibson the opportunity to compose a piece for strings, and offered to premiere the piece at the Lamar Stringfield Music Camp. Not surprisingly, Gibson embraced this opportunity and composed a string trio titled Themes on an African Masque.
The Philharmonic Association has commissioned several works from Gibson since then, including two pieces honoring Martin Luther King. This year, we are excited to have commissioned a piece from Gibson with African origins to be played by our United Strings of Color. The piece not only features distinctly African rhythms, but is accompanied by narration that tells an adaption of the African folk tale “The Tortoise and the Wisdom of the World.” Gibson has titled the piece Ijapa and Mr. Igbin.
Gibson is enthusiastic about the opportunity to share his knowledge of African music with the young members of the United Strings of Color, and with the audiences in attendance at performances of the piece. “My developing this music is just to give people another view of what is a possible—to give people a new way to see music,” Gibson says. “You have to be willing to expand your consciousness.” Having toured the world, played with groups ranging from Starleta Depar’s African Jazz Group to the North Carolina Symphony, and composed for everything from full orchestras to jazz trios, it is clear that Gibson is not afraid of expanding his consciousness.
See music in a new way at the premiere of Gibson’s Ijapa and Mr. Igbin. Experience the unique feel of African rhythms for yourself, and witness the combining of music, art, and narration during one powerful performance. People of all ages will learn from and enjoy hearing the story of Ijapa the tortoise and Mr. Igbin the snail. Our premiere, scheduled to take place on March 26th at 6:00 at Poe Elementary, is postponed at this time.