Drummer reflects on the before and after of his life's work, the 12-album '400: An Afrikan Epic'

Last year Mark Lomax received an Artist Residency Award from the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State, which helped him complete his recently released magnum opus, 400: An Afrikan Epic, a 12-album cycle that traces black America from the beginning of the slave trade in 1619 through today and into the future.

But Lomax’s relationship with Ohio State, where the drummer earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, had a rocky start.

“I had to choose whether or not I was going to be a classical musician or a jazz musician, and I don't like being either of those,” said Lomax, who embraces the idea of “organic hybrids.” “I was writing arrangements of gospel music for orchestras all over the world, but I couldn't turn that in as work samples because it's gospel. It was not considered art music. … They told me that music based on African and African-American folk music was not the stuff of art.”

But Lomax was convinced he had to deal with the music of his people. In fact, he couldn’t figure out who he was until he made sense of that complicated history. And identity, he argued, leads to authenticity, which leads to power. “Once you figure out who you are, that knowing allows you to authentically exist in the world, and engaging the world from your most authentic place is powerful,” he said.

Lomax was singing along to music as an infant and began playing drums at age 2. He performed publicly for the first time in an Akron church at 6, and by 14 he was touring with gospel groups. In his teens, he learned by watching legendary Columbus jazz drummers James “Smooth” Elliott and Billy Brown.

The idea for 400 hit him in 2016, after the Wexner Center premiere of “Song of the Dogon” by the Mark Lomax Trio (Eddie Bayard on tenor sax, William Menefield on piano, Lomax on drums). “I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I've been preparing for,’” said Lomax, who wasn’t initially daunted by the prospect of making 12 albums in three years. “Up until that point we had been putting out four albums a year anyway.”

400, available at marklomaxii.com, is divided into three parts: Alkebulan: The Beginning of Us; Ma’afa: Great Tragedy; and Afro-Futurism: The Return to Uhuru. The album cycle holds true to Lomax’s organic-hybrid ideal, mixing classical, jazz, gospel and other forms in solo, duo, trio, quartet and larger ensemble arrangements. Some chunks were recorded in basements, and others were done in a marathon session at Relay Recording with the core ensemble: Lomax, Bayard, Menefield and bassist Dean Hulett.

“After we did that week of recording in August of 2018, we all were different, but we didn't know how,” said Lomax, who has noticed that after 400, he cares more about some things and less about others. “I care about the audience, and I care about the quality of the work. What I don't care about is what people think. And now I don't feel like I have to prove anything. [But] there are other things that are still being processed at that deeper spiritual level.”

Some of that processing involves putting the accomplishment of 400 in the context of his life. Lomax has firsthand experience of American poverty. He grew up poor but educated and found himself homeless in New Orleans at the age of 22. He has stood in the welfare line with his wife and newborn daughter (though his pride wouldn’t let him fill out the papers).

“I was sweeping floors. I did anything for money,” Lomax said. “But if I can get through all of that to create something like the 400, what can you do?”