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Moments of Enlightenment with Broadway's Brian Stokes Mitchell

They say you should never meet your heroes. I suppose opportunities for disappointment abound when those we admire from afar are encountered in the flesh, without flattering lighting or accompanying strings, just everyday people. But not so when it comes to Brian Stokes Mitchell, who has been one of my heroes ever since I saw him starring in the original production of Ragtime on Broadway in the late '90s.

Stokes, as he likes to be called, was the most impossibly charismatic, unreasonably handsome, insanely talented singing, dancing, piano-playing, larger-than-life leading man to end all leading men. Sitting in that dark theater, I hoped that someday I'd be as excited and delighted in my work as he clearly was in his, up on that stage. I did not dream for a second that someday we'd share a stage together.

But that's what happened two years ago at the Boston Pops. We teamed up for a concert built on the legacy of the creative collaboration between Stokes' own hero Duke Ellington (whom he even named his son after) and the composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn, who at age 23 idolized Ellington when they first met. Many years and many songs later, Ellington called Strayhorn "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine."

At that concert in Boston, when Stokes and I took the stage to perform Strayhorn's extraordinary song "Lush Life," we found ourselves entangled in one of those rare moments of musical magic when your brainwaves do, in fact, flow right into each other's heads.

Stokes' head is a wonderful place to be. As you'll see from this conversation, he is endlessly curious in his passionate, almost nerdy fascination with music and the way it brings people together in the sacred space of common ground and shared experience. Our conversation has since continued by phone and text, in the backseats of cars, in rehearsal studios and dressing rooms, over lunches and dinners. Stokes is still very much a hero of mine, and now he's my friend too, with so many ideas to share and so much music to make together. As Billy Strayhorn always said: "Ever up and onward."

[Amplify with Lara Downes is a video series that highlights Black creatives as they shape art and culture. This season's guests include country singer Brittney Spencer, saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington, conductor Thomas Wilkins, poet aja monet, harpist Brandee Younger, opera star Denyce Graves and more. You can watch more episodes of Amplify here.]

Copyright 2024 Classical California

Lara Downes
Lara Downes is among the foremost American pianists of her generation, a trailblazer both on and off the stage, whose musical roadmap seeks inspiration from the legacies of history, family and collective memory. As a chart-topping recording artist, a powerfully charismatic performer, a curator and tastemaker, Downes is recognized as a cultural visionary on the national arts scene.