HOLLYWOOD — Members of the Cooper City High School band wind ensemble visited Hollywood Reservation on a recent February morning to sit under the canopy of the historic, revered Council Oak tree and ponder its greatness.
“Kids grew up playing under the tree. Once, it was hit by lightning and almost died … it represents the undying life of the Tribe,” Tiffany Cochran, a field technician for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, told students during a brief presentation.
Cooper City High’s band director Chandler Wilson said he brought the students to the spot to “experience” the presence of the tree, learn about its place in Seminole history and use the newfound knowledge to better interpret and perform the symphonic piece “Council Oak” by contemporary composer David Gillingham.
“Musicians have to know what they are playing about to emotionally understand it. Being here, physically, makes it more monumental. It gives them an emotional connection,” Wilson said.
Listed in the Tribal Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places, the tree was part of the original Seminole settlement in the early 1820s long before Hollywood existed. Held as a community meeting spot since the reservation was established as Dania Reservation in 1926, it became an official place for ceremonies in 1957 when the Tribe’s constitution was signed in its shade.
Gillingham’s 11-minute composition for band and wind ensemble, created to honor the Tribe and the Council Oak, was completed in 2001 and introduced publicly in 2002 by the Florida All-State Honor Band in Tampa.
Wilson said “Council Oak,” a 13-stanza, 401-word poem written by Moses Jumper Jr. that personifies the tree’s endurance and strength and inspired the symphonic piece, was read and discussed during band class.
The Cooper City teens presented the piece March 9 at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale during the District 15 High School Concert MPA South assessment of high school bands. On a scale of 1 to 6 in terms of performance difficulty, the composition is rated 6 by the Florida Bandmasters Association.
Wilson said Cooper City earned the highest (A+) scores in all areas of the assessment and will go on to compete at a statewide review in Vero Beach April 27-29.
Gillingham, professor of music composition at Central Michigan University, said he was commissioned in early 2001 by the Florida Bandmasters Association to write an original piece for band performances – but with the request, came a suggestion to research Seminole history.
A series of leads took Gillingham from a Jacksonville high school to a Hollywood historian, the Smithsonian Institute and the United States Printing Office in Washington, D.C., and to Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum at the Big Cypress Reservation. At the Museum, he came across Jumper’s poem.
“When I found the poem and read it, I jumped for joy. I thought, ‘Here is the whole story and it is all put down in poetry.’ It was all lined up so well,” Gillingham said in a telephone interview from his Michigan home.
Employing some recurring musical themes from Seminole songs recorded in the early 1930s and now held at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., Gillingham composed the piece to follow Jumper’s poem. It begins with reflective percussion sounds that lead into Indian flutes. The composition develops and changes with intensity and reflective sound through poem text.
The music has been performed by high school and college bands nationwide, including the University of Minnesota, the Lakota West Symphonic Band from Lakota West High School in West Chester, Ohio, Moanalua High School in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Taravella High School in Coral Springs.
Guy Aloni, a senior percussionist in the band, said he was “intrigued” by the history of the Council Oak and surprised that it stands so royally and nearly untouched along Hollywood’s urban State Road 7 corridor.
“Being here gives me a lot more context. When I heard the music and read the poem I thought the tree would be in the Everglades,” Guy said. “Now I know how significant it is and now I can know better how to play the music – where and how to put the sound of the cymbal crash.”
Ariana Malian, a senior saxophonist, said she was in awe of the tree.
Knowing the poem brought her more understanding about the Tribe and what the tree represents.
“The Tribe’s survival itself is a miracle, but to come here and see the tree is to see Florida history. It does have a life of its own; there is depth to it,” Ariana said. “It’s rare that a random thing that we see every day would have such significance.”
She referred to the line in the poem, “Some nations and trees have fallen in their attempt to grow, perhaps defeated, trodden and weakened to a slow. But in years we have faced the storm and the rain, stood above the flood as in stature we’d gain,” as emotional.
“It is hard to display such a rich history in an 11-minute song,” Ariana said, “but if we work to understand it, we can do it justice.”