Mark Lomax II packed up his drums after teaching a master class to some of Ohio State’s percussionists.
“I have to finish writing a symphony by next Monday,” he said as he continued to pack.
Writing a symphony might not seem like a casual task, but for Lomax, a Columbus born-and-raised composer, drummer, activist and educator, it’s just a normal week.
Lomax, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and doctorate of music arts degree at Ohio State, was also given the 2018 Wexner Center for the Arts Artist Residency Award. The award supported the completion of “400: An Afrikan Epic,” a jazz project depicting the history of blackness in America — from the transatlantic slave trade to important figures in black history — and finishing with a musical comment on the modern black experience.
The project documents the first Africans brought to America as slaves 400 years ago.
Lomax’s piece includes concepts not traditionally used in jazz music, such as a custom-pitched drum set that Lomax uses to help tell a musical story. In Western culture, the drum is not usually considered a melodic instrument.
However, in Africa, it is the contrary; the drum is a spiritual instrument, its different pitches allowing it to “talk” and connect with ancestors, Lomax said.
Helping others recognize the storytelling nature of music is one of Lomax’s main purposes in composing.
“My work in particular is about optimizing human potential. So, all I can do as an artist is plant a seed. I can tell a story and you have to bring yourself to that story,” Lomax said. “When you hear and engage with that story, you determine as the listener how relevant it may be or not.”
Lomax’s perspective bridges the gap between music and history and has inspired his former instructors.
“He created his own vision for where he wanted to go and where he felt the music inside,” said Jim Rupp, an Ohio State jazz percussion instructor who taught Lomax at Ohio State. “I think it opened a lot of eyes and ears. I think musically, it got them thinking and hearing differently.”
Lomax is using his music to spread the word about Columbus’ diversity in arts and people.
“What we haven’t really seen in Columbus is a celebration of diversity,” Lomax said after a sold-out performance of his piece at Lincoln Theatre on Jan. 26. “Especially in a year like 2019, when we have the quadricentennial, the commemoration of the first Africans being brought to America as slaves [in 1619].”
The historical context and importance of “400: An Afrikan Epic” speak volumes about Lomax as an artist and what he hopes to accomplish with his art.
“I’m not an artist who believes in art for art’s sake. Why do you do what you do, and how does what you do become relevant to other people? I think that’s through stories, and I think that’s the tradition of African-American music,” he said.
Lomax plans to share his journey in recording “400: An Afrikan Epic” with the help of the film crew and production team that has followed him since 2016, chronicling the entire project. When the documentary is finished, he plans to pitch the idea to streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu.