UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 16 Winter 23 Library
A trio shot shows Bill Cole (left) on pidi, Warren Smith on drums (center) and Ras Moshe (right) at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Image by Justin Kim (’24)
Arts Administration

Bill Cole & the Untempered Ensemble

Sometimes there is art just where, when, and how you need it.

Sometimes there is art just where, when, and how you need it. 

UVA Associate Professor of Arts Administration George Sampson and a cohort of Arts Administration students had worked on planning and executing a residency by free jazz great Bill Cole and his Untempered Ensemble since March. Cole is hardly a stranger to UVA and to Charlottesville, having performed multiple concerts and events over many years, thanks in part to his long history with Sampson, who was once a student of Cole’s at Amherst and has been a friend and collaborator for more than five decades.  

Cole’s Untempered Ensemble celebrates and personifies diversity in every way. Its members are of Indigenous American (Wabanaki and Nipissing), Asian-American, and African American descent. They perform on a variety of wind, string, and percussion instruments from six different continents -instruments audiences may never have otherwise had a chance to hear. They feature artists in their 70’s and 80’s and artists in their 20’s and 30’s. 

Founded in 1992 as a trio featuring Cole, William Smith, and Joe Daley, today the Untempered Ensemble features Bill Cole on Asian double reeds & didgeridoo, Joseph Daley on tuba & baritone horn, Ras Moshe Burnette on soprano & tenor saxes & flute, Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, flugelhorn, double-belled cornet, conch shell & mutes, Althea Sully Cole on kora, Mali Obomsawin on acoustic bass and Warren Smith on drums & percussion.  

The Untempered Ensemble at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
(Photo: Justin Kim College '24)

The group’s unique makeup was key to the itinerary the Arts Administration students built for the residency, which took place from November 13-17. The original plan was to begin the residency with a historic performance at the Monument for Enslaved Laborers, which would have been the first-ever live musical performance there. Cole had chosen a program with pieces focused on black culture and specifically around issues of violence surrounding the black community.  

It really made me realize we were all in this together, and I felt so supported.
Hayeon Chung

That historic moment was delayed due to the tragic events of Sunday, November 13, that took the lives of Lavel Davis, Jr., Devin Chandler, and D’Sean Perry, and injured fellow students Mike Hollins and Marlee Morgan. There were obvious questions around the rest of the week’s residency events. Danait Haddish, who was close to several of the victims, was unsure of what should happen when she walked into a meeting the next morning. “The ensemble was just so gracious. It felt like they were offering their music, and I was just there to receive it and listen. It gave me a purpose. I felt like they were there to use music as a remedy rather than to impose themselves on the community.” 

Second-year student Pre-Commerce student Hayeon Chung, who joined the project in September while a course assistant for a class taught by Sampson, found the music and the project healing as well. “With everything that had happened, I think my inclination would have been to stay home and not talk to anyone. The residency pushed me to get out there and interact with others, whether it was my fellow students on the project or the community members who came to experience it. It really made me realize we were all in this together and I felt so supported.” 

The musicians brought that empathy to a sold-out performance at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a Freedmen’s School that opened in 1865 and was the only Black high school in Charlottesville until 1951. It is known, Haddish added, as a traditionally safe space for African Americans and is a place the ensemble has played before. They brought it to another important and symbolic venue when they performed a concert in the Dome Room at the Rotunda.  

“The Rotunda, and the University as a whole, remained a ‘Whites Only’ space until the late 1950s,” Sampson said. “The musicians saw this as an opportunity to reclaim these historical places and introduce audience members to the power of global music in a modern age.” 

Bill Cole & the Untempered Ensemble (Top Left: Ras Moshe, Joseph Daley, Bill Cole, Warren Smith | Bottom Left: Olivia Shortt, Mali Obomsawin, Althea SullyCole, & Taylor Ho Bynum)

“There was a sense among all the students working on the project that the Dome Room,” Haddish said, “and the Rotunda, in general, can feel inaccessible to students. The ensemble was really interested in taking over a place that felt inaccessible and making it a welcoming space for people who would normally not go there.” 

And took over they did, transforming the space and creating a healing moment by sharing a world of sounds with an audience in great need of the healing and communal power of the arts. “We went from not having any idea what these instruments were,” Haddish said, “to wondering how in the world we were ever going to transport them into the Dome Room to being transfixed by sounds many will never hear again in Charlottesville.” 

Each performance throughout the week featured pieces performed with the place they were being played in mind, and no pieces were repeated. The natural reverberation of the Dome Room sent notes cascading from its circular walls and flying up to and from its iconic starscape ceiling. It was music that both announced its presence with the joy of soaring cornets and gave knowing nods to history near dissonant horn chords that mixed the array of native instruments.  

The ensemble seemed to make the musical point, again and again, in countless ways, that even amidst the hard truths of history and the unspeakable tragedy of the week’s events – music is a language unlike any other in its ability to meet us exactly where we are and help us toward where we hope to go. 

The residency was supported by the UVA Arts Council, the Office of the Provost and Vice Provost for the Arts, the UVA Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, The Department of Art, the Department of Music, the student-run Spectrum Theater, the Charlottesville Jazz Society, the Jefferson School of African American Heritage Center, WTJU Radio and private donations. 

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