Step by Step
The image of the six-year-old black girl accompanied by National Guard as she makes her way to school has become one of the iconic symbols of America’s civil rights era. Famously documented by novelist John Steinbeck in his travelogue “Travels with Charley and by Norman Rockwell in the famous 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With,” the story of Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the American South, is a tale of courage that resonates across generations.
Composed in 2012 for the celebration of Black History Month at Reed College during its centennial year, Darrell Grant’s “Step by Step:The Ruby Bridges Suite” was inspired by a discussion with a friend whose young daughter was reading Robert Cole’s “The Story of Ruby Bridges” in her second grade class. Intrigued by the suggestion that he set Ruby’s story to music, Grant dove into Bridge’s autobiography “Through my Eyes” and other sources to learn more about the person whose bravery paved the way for continued Civil Rights action.
The resulting multi-movement piece for eight instrumentalists, vocalist, and narrator is a powerful and poignant ode to social justice. Drawing on gospel and spiritual traditions as well as jazz and chamber music and weaving music and spoken word to illustrate an emotional portrait of a dramatic time in US history.
Some movements, like the tranquil “Summer 1959,” and “The Cheerleaders”—which depicts the vociferous racism that the six year old Ruby encountered as she traversed the route to the William Frantz Elementary School—portray specific incidents. Others like “Hold My Hand” written from the perspective of Ruby’ mother and the piece’s triumphant finale “We Rise” capture the emotions behind the story.
Grant worked with Portland-based director and co-founder of the August Wilson Red Door Project Kevin Jones to develop the part of the Narrator, who provides critical context on the historical and racial climate surrounding Bridge’s story. The musical movements are framed with speeches from historic figures like W.E.B. Dubois and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., poems, newspaper articles, Supreme Court rulings, and the words of Ruby Bridges herself.
Darrell Grant, piano/composer
Joe Locke, vibraphone
Steve Wilson, saxophones
Clark Sommers, bass
Brian Blade, drums
Marilyn Keller, voice
John Nastos, bass clarinet
Farnell Newton, trumpet
Anthony Dyer, viola
Kevin Jones, narrator
Step by Step
Why have you Forsaken Us
Tell You This (Jim Crow’s Song)
Hold My Hand
more about step by step
Grant’s suite continues to make an impact, as the Ruby Bridges story retains its resonance in contemporary culture. 2017 performances are scheduled in Washington , DC and New Orleans. Grant is working on an orchestral version of the work for 2018.
This project is available for bookings. Contact Kim Gumbel for booking inquiries.
Step By Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite premiered on February 11, 2012 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium in Portland, Oregon. Since its original performance, a second version of the piece was developed in collaboration with choral composer Jason Shelton to include multiple vocal soloists and a gospel choir. This arrangement was premiered in June 2015 at Nashville, Tennessee’s First Unitarian-Universalist Church on the Sunday following the tragic shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.