Marvin “Hannibal” Peterson 1948
Marvin “Hannibal” Peterson 1948–
Avant-garde jazz trumpeter
He lists among his influences figures as diverse as blues guitarist B. B. King and Czech classical composer Leos Janacek, and the authors of Jazz: The Essential Companion observe that “his concept seems to embrace the entire jazz tradition from New Orleans to Coltrane.” Hannibal Peterson has been among the most musically wide-ranging, omnivorous, and ambitious figures spawned by the experimental movement in jazz of the 1970s. A trumpeter and composer, he has continued to try new forms and broaden his musical horizons even as other jazz musicians have retrenched into established styles.
Hannibal Peterson was born Marvin Peterson in the small central Texas town of Smithville on November 11, 1948. Musical education came Marvin Peterson’s way from several directions. First there was his mother, whom he described as a pianist of, according to the Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, “the Earl ‘Tatha’ Hines school.” His mother gave him a trumpet and set him on a lifelong journey exploring the possibilities of that instrument. Later in his youth his family lived in Texas City, on the Gulf Coast, where he played in a high school band and briefly organized his own group, the Soul Masters. He also studied musical theory and harmony during his school years, an opportunity afforded few American youngsters of any background.
Peterson went on to study music in college, attending North Texas State College (now North Texas State University) in Denton, Texas, between 1967 and 1969 and playing trumpet in the band there. At the time, the study of jazz in academic settings was in its infancy, and Peterson augmented his education by playing in area clubs. He learned not only from other jazz musicians but also from the vigorous Texas blues scene, and he has credited guitarist T-Bone Walker, with whom he played for a time in the late 1960s, as a particular inspiration. In 1970, Peterson lit out for New York City, the jazz mecca.
It did not take Peterson long to garner recognition and performance opportunities from some of jazz’s most forward looking figures of the day. For several years he worked intermittently with the ensemble of legendary jazz arranger Gil Evans, who had collaborated with trumpeter Miles Davis on several of Davis’s groundbreaking orchestral jazz albums. Peterson also worked with Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Elvin Jones, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and other leading figures who exemplified the adventurous spirit of 1970s jazz. Playing occasional club dates as a headliner, he impressed a patron who one night approached him with a startling statement. “He told me his purpose in coming was to tell me my name, Hannibal,” Peterson recalled in an interview with Esquire writer and jazz journalist Gary Giddins. The patron had been reading about Hannibal, the noted general of ancient Roman times, and Peterson has used the name ever since.
By 1974 Peterson had forged a distinctive musical profile that included elements of hard bop, the complex
At a Glance…
Born Marvin Peterson in Smithville, Texas, November 11, 1948; mother a jazz pianist. Education: Attended high school in Texas City, TX; attended North Texas State University, Denton, TX, 1967-69.
Career: Jazz trumpeter and composer. Formed group, the Soul Masters, in high school; played in bands at North Texas State and in blues and jazz ensembles around Texas, 1967-69; moved to New York City, 1970; jazz ensemble work and recordings with Gil Evans and other group leaders, early 1970s; formed own group, the Sunrise Orchestra, 1974; released solo debut Children of the Fire album, 1974; released Angels of Atlanta album, featuring Harlem Boys’ Choir, 1981; composed stage work, Diary of an African-American, 1994.
improvisatory style rooted in the classic bebop of saxophonist Charlie Parker and his successors, and also of free jazz, a 1960s experimental movement in which musicians completely renounced the idea of elaborating musically on a preexisting model. “Marvin has already evolved his own style,” bassist and composer Charles Mingus told Esquire’s Giddins. “He’s ready.” Evans for his part, pointed in the same interview to his protégé’s growing skills as a composer. “When you hear the way he writes for strings on his record Children of the Fire, you will realize [that he is] a very special, serious, schooled musician,” he said. Such recordings as Symphony African reflected the formal side of Peterson’s training
In 1974 Peterson had formed his own ensemble, the Sunrise Orchestra. He continued to perform on trumpet with Evans through the 1980s, touring with the latter’s ensemble through Europe and Japan, and also appearing with other headliners and groups in both bop-inflected and free-jazz styles. The Sunrise Orchestra, however, served as a vehicle for Peterson’s own musical ideas, which combined an experimental sensibility with aspects of established African-American musical traditions. This idea was anathema to the relentlessly innovation-demanding leading edge of jazz in the 1970s, but has since become much more widely accepted. Peterson’s is a name only moderately well-known in jazz circles, and this may be because he was well ahead of his time in this regard.
Thus Peterson’s 1981 album The Angels of Atlanta featured the Boys Choir of Harlem along with bop improvisations from Peterson and an all-star band that included pianist Kenny Barron. Critic Scott Yanow, writing in the All Music Guide to Jazz, called the work “one of Hannibal’s finest recordings,” because it “stretches the boundaries of his music toward gospel and soul without watering down the jazz content.” The Sunrise Orchestra was a malleable group that often included a cello in addition to a jazz rhythm section and Peterson’s own trumpet.
Peterson also broadened his vocabulary to include the musical languages of other cultures. He learned to play the Japanese koto, a zither-like stringed instrument, and often included koto improvisations in Sunrise Orchestra performances. Also, like many other progressive jazz musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, Peterson began to incorporate elements of African music into his own efforts. But his encounter with African music was perhaps more directly spiritual in nature than most.
Peterson’s ambitious 1994 stage work Diary of an African-American drew on the events of his own life that led him to African music. The work depicts a trip Peterson made, spiritually exhausted and physically ill with pneumonia, to Kenya in 1979. Upon his arrival he was given a kalimba, a Kenyan finger piano, by a small boy. The events held special significance for Peterson, who for years had dreamed of a similar encounter, and who believed himself to be of Kenyan ancestry. Diary of an African-American also touches on earlier phases of Peterson’s career, and at the end shows Peterson giving his own son a kalimba to convey a continuity of contact with African spiritual values and forms of musical community.
Diary of an African-American also included Peterson’s trademark mix of one-of-a-kind advanced jazz elements with blues, gospel, and more popular strains of jazz. The work even attracted the attention of the thoroughly classical-oriented journal Opera News, whose reviewer praised the work as “an engaging evening,” even if it “never quite comes to life as drama, not to mention opera.” He followed up this work with a choral piece, African Portraits, which he recorded in 1995. Peterson continued to compose and record through the 1990s, even as fellow 1970s-forged musicians such as Wynton Marsalis gained wider attention for such ambitious dramatic works. Perhaps, by the century’s end, he could take satisfaction in a lifetime spent as one of the true pathbreakers of modern jazz.
Children of the Fire, Sunrise, 1974.
Hannibal, MPS, 1975.
Naima, EMI, 1978.
Hannibal in Antibes, Inner City, 1978.
The Angels of Atlanta, Enja, 1981.
Visions of a New World, Atlantic Jazz, 1989.
Hannibal M. Peterson Meets Serene (with Serene), Ear-Rational, 1990.
Crossing (with Serene), Ear-Rational, 1991.
African Portraits, Teldec, 1995.
Numerous recordings with Gil Evans Orchestra and other jazz ensembles.
Carr, Ian, et al., eds., Jazz: The Essential Companion, Prentice Hall, 1987.
Erlewine, Michael, et al, eds., All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman, 1998.
Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, Horizon, 1976.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, eds., The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan, 1986.
Esquire, March 1975, p. 46.
Opera News, June 1994, p. 48.
—James M. Manheim
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