Black Composers since 1964: Dreams Deferred?


For Black History Month this year I have posed a question: How has the 1964 Civil Rights Act impacted black composers? I assumed, even as I posed the question, that there had been relatively little progress but I have been able to document an increase in recordings of music by black composers.  However what I am finding and expect will continue to find is far less than the dream envisioned by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and others who are of that generation. I have received some responses, two of which I have published here, which are carefully diplomatic though not without a note of skepticism.  I have received other responses which are far less optimistic which I have agreed not to publish.  And I will continue to write on this subject even after this American 28 day annual celebration of Black History Month. I did receive the following less optimistic reply from a concert promoter named Bill Doggett.  He is the nephew of the late keyboard player whose name he shares.  The musician Bill Doggett played with various jazz and rhythm and blues groups.  The concert promoter who carries on a commitment to black music agreed to write a response to my question and asked that I publish it. Here on the last day of Black History Month is Mr. Doggett’s commentary:

As we mark the end of Black History Month 2014, The 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the critical new “My Brother’s Keeper”Initiative http://www.whitehouse.gov/my-brothers-keeper launched by the first African-American President, Barack Obama, the impact of these events on and for current and future contemporary African-American composers has promise
 
However, the promise is still a mixed one…
 
That is to say, while there was a major flowering and great showcase of programming and recording of music by contemporary black composers during the late 1960s-70s, i.e. Primous Fountain, George Walker, Adolphus Hailstork et al,   eager and invited programming of new music by black composers in symphony subscription concerts, much of that came to a screeching halt with the social conservatism that arrived during the administrations of President George H Walker Bush and with George Bush.
Adolphus Hailstork (1941- )

Adolphus Hailstork (1941- )

Primjous Fountain (1949- )

Primous Fountain (1949- )

The social political pulse of the country changed……from the heightened sense of social responsibility and accountability of the era of LBJ’s  “The Great Society”     If you will, there was a cultural “backlash” to the perception of “African-American” as synonymous with “welfare mother”, “food stamps”,”housing projects run amok”…and  “drugs”.  The social political tempo of the country was mirrored and linked to the iconic  Nancy Reagan motto “Just Say No” Anti Drug campaign.
Symphony orchestras stopped aggressively inviting and programming new music by Black Composers-except during February, Black History Month.
Yet, there were silver linings and sunshine in the dark clouds:  Anthony Davis’ 1986 landmark opera: X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X premiered at the recently closed New York City Opera,1995 Olly Wilson’s Shango Memory for Orchestra, commissioned for the 150th Anniversary of The New York Philharmonic,1997, Amistad: The Story of The Slave Ship Rebellion premiered at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the emergence of a new important generation of composers in the late 1990s including Jonathan Bailey Holland, James Lee III, Trevor Weston and Anthony R. Green.

Anthony Davis (1951- )

Anthony Davis (1951- )

The challenge in 2014 for Black Composers is one that was on full view at the recent Sphinx Con think tank conference in Detroit sponsored by Aaron Dworkin’s Sphinx Music  www.sphinxmusic.org
Anthony R. Green (1984- )

Anthony R. Green (1984- )

 Artistic administrators and the major symphony orchestras consist of  predominantly upper to upper middle class white male and female musicians who are not interested in notable change that embraces a deep commitment to diversity in the classical performing arts.   
As Dworkin as passionately stated, Black Musicians only make up at maximum 2% of the composition of America’s orchestras.  Institutionally, American orchestras and their administrations are comfortable in this ivory tower status.     The entrenched practice of holding auditions with screens actually makes it nearly impossible to advance the goal of making Symphony Orchestras more ethnically diverse.
Jonathan Bailey Holland (1974- )

Jonathan Bailey Holland (1974- )

This applies even more so to the world of The Black Composer. Black Composers’ music is in 2014 rarely programmed on subscription concerts, excepting special events: like  “A Black History Month Concert”
Worse, at Sphinx Con, one white male presenter declared quite openly and declaratively…. that because white men are in charge of most of the leading artistic organizations, that white male privilege…..reigned and Black and Latinos seeking more rapid diversity….needed to get over it 
 Worse still, the suggestion followed that  White Male dominated artistic organizations should be PROUD OF their “incremental change” of 1% or 2% improvements ….
THAT is not a recipe for creative collaboration with American orchestras that the established and emerging contemporary Black Composer need to embrace.
In this light, thank goodness for the progressive vision and work of Conductor, Leonard Slatkin and The Detroit Symphony for inviting a conversation about nurturing and developing Diversity in Classical Music.   On March 9/10 2014, there is a showcase of music by contemporary African-American composers and a related Symposium.      A similar new energy has found its way to The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with the hiring of African-American conductor, Joseph Young as Assistant Conductor and Music Director of The Atlanta Youth Orchestra.
Indeed, promise….is on the horizon.     Let us collectively ensure that we are called
to celebrate the truth of the old Negro Spiritual “This Little Light of Mine…Im gonna let it shine…”
Written by Bill Doggett, strategic marketer and rep for Black Composers at Bill Doggett Productions
I have articles currently in preparation on Anthony Davis, Primous Fountain, Jonathan Bailey Holland and Anthony R. Green among others.  If you don’t know these composers you should give a listen to their work.  I continue to welcome comments both on my question and on the composers and their music.
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