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:
In this, the 50th anniversary year of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights act I have decided to do a survey of black composers who have come of age in the aftermath. The push for equal rights in the way people are treated, given access to voting, education, business and financial opportunities was the spirit of that legislation. Though many speak of a “post-racial” America it is clear from any fair analysis that we have a long way to go.
I am beginning a series of articles in honor of Black History Month and in honor of this legislation which attempts to address this inequality. Each article will feature a composer or composers whose work I personally find interesting and worth promoting and which was written or premiered in or after 1964. I will not necessarily limit myself to Americans both because that would be unnecessarily constricting and inconsistent with the spirit of Black History Month and because non-American black composers suffer similar obscurity and may have even benefited from the 1964 legislation.
Whether the legislation has improved the opportunities for black composers is, of course, open to debate but the quality of these artists stand alone on their own merits. They may have had opportunities not available to their predecessors and this may be a positive result of this legislation. But the fact that awareness of their work is limited and promoted in relatively obscure contexts such as this blog suggests that true equality in the area of recognition of artistic merit remains elusive (though the availability of recordings of the music of black composers has certainly increased) . Curiously the United States has chosen the shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History whereas England, who abolished slavery before the U.S., celebrates it in October. Yes, it’s only 3 days, but the irony is hard to miss.
The pioneering work of musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma has done a great service in promoting the work of black composers internationally. He was involved in the production of the landmark series for Columbia Records along with the great (now retired) conductor Paul Freeman recording a variety of music from black composers world-wide. I had discussed this set in a blog last year and it is worth mentioning that the complete set of recordings has been reissued on 9 vinyl discs as a result of a Ford Foundation grant and remains available through the College Music Society in Missoula, Montana for $35. This beautifully produced box set deserves an honored place in any record collection.
This pioneering set has inspired similar series by Albany Records and Cedille Records which have made recordings available of some very attractive music of black composers which deserves a wider audience. It is largely these sets and the writing of Professor de Lerma which serve as the source for the series I am doing on this blog.
The internet site africalssical blog is also a very useful resource which is updated frequently and reports the work of black musicians working in the so-called classical world. It is difficult and perhaps superfluous to try to separate jazz and classical so I will include composers without concern for specific genre categories except, perhaps, pop composers whose work is well-represented in the mainstream.
Pioneering black musicians like Natalie Hinderas, Martina Arroyo, Marian Anderson, Dean Dixon, William Grant Still and their like paved the way for their successors such as Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Paul Freeman, George Walker and others whose stars became visible to the casual onlooker. Of course there are fine black classical artists whose talents remain too little known. How many people know Awadagin Pratt, Mark Doss, Michael Morgan and other active black musical artists? It takes much more work for listeners to find and appreciate their talents.
It takes even more work to find black composers, especially if they are not also performers. Most people, even most musicians, would have difficulty naming a single black classical composer.
I contacted several prominent black musicians to pose the question of how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted black classical composers. To date I am pleased to say that I have received two gracious replies. The first is from Michael Morgan who currently serves as conductor of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Festival Opera in Walnut Creek. He has numerous recordings to his credit as well. Maestro Morgan replied as follows:
There may have been a more direct impact on the integration of some concert halls in particularly segregated cities, but the performing arts have historically been somewhat ahead of society in general in terms of promoting fully integrated events, at least in communities where there was significant acceptance of such integration.”
Morgan’s practical approach to programming is evident here and the point is well-taken that consistent programming of minority composers would result in a more sustained impact than simply having focused efforts during given months or weeks. In fact this notion has convinced me that my blogs on the subject might be more effective if I were to spread them throughout the year, something which I will now incorporate. My previous blog post on black classical conductors which included Maestro Morgan has been one of my most frequently viewed posts and I will expand on that subject in the months to come.
The second reply was from eminent composer Adolphus Hailstork who was the subject of my first blog post for black history month from last year. He replied very thoughtfully as follows:
“Fifty Years After the 1964 Civil Rights Act
Having grown up in New York State and not experienced “legalized” segregation as practiced in the South, I had enjoyed as a youth, all the rights and privileges of American citizenship due me. There were no “colored” this and “white” that signs or classrooms, or lunch counters, etc. So the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not have a direct effect on my life at that time.
(I much later came to appreciate the value of the changes in the south when I came to live there as a working adult.)
Actually, it was the assassination of Dr. King that opened doors to my beginning my doctorate degree that same year when I got out of the army (1968).
Also, that tragic event influenced the unfolding of my career, because it led to an interest in the music of African-American classical composers for the honoring of Dr. King’s birthday celebration in January and, by extension, the heightened interest in such music during the February Black History Month observance.
I believe the history of African-Americans is tragic, heroic, triumphant, and, of course, filled with awesomely dramatic stories. It is an honor to attempt in some small way to pay tribute through music to our story.”
Clearly Dr. Hailstork notes the difference between his experiences in the north where he was born and was able to see the profound contrast he experienced working in the south at Old Dominion University in Virginia particularly during the early civil rights struggles and their aftermath. The emotional impact of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the same year he concluded his military service is noted as a formative issue as well.
One can easily hear the deep emotional impact of which he speaks in works like his second symphony from 1999 which reflects his feelings after having visited the slave markets of West Africa and his American Guernica (1983) which is about the Birmingham 16th Baptist Church bombing which killed 4 little girls in 1963. Other works such as his Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed, In Memoriam Martin Luther King, Jr. (1979) also reflect the impact of these events on him personally and reflect what he describes as his feeling of honor in being able to pay tribute to these tragedies describing them aptly as “our story”.
I think it is important to begin to see the tragic and triumphant events of the civil rights era as our American story and not just as the story of black Americans. Indeed these events are part of our collective history as human beings and as Americans. These are stories that need telling and re-telling as a part of the healing process and the exorcising of the evil deeds of our collective past.
As promised in a previous blog I am here continuing a little personal survey of recordings of music by black classical composers in honor of Black History Month. I suppose it is worth adding that I pursue these recordings because they present interesting and exciting repertoire that has not gotten the circulation it deserves. Sadly this is most likely the result of the failure of producers, performers audiences and investors to look at the value of the art itself, looking instead through the lens of racial prejudice. I hope that readers of these blogs will avail themselves of this music, these performers, these recordings and maybe come to realize that those old prejudices serve only to limit one’s world view and prevent a rewarding artistic experience. Art, like people, must come to be valued by its own merits, not limited on the basis of skin color. MLK definitely phrased that more elegantly.
And further proof of such valuable art can be found in a series of recordings on the Chicago-based label Cedille. In fact their website cedillerecords.org contains a link to the six albums of music by black composers they have thus far issued.
Building on the work he had begun with the Black Composers series for Columbia in the 1970s conductor Paul Freeman released three CDs in the Cedille series called ‘African Heritage Symphonic Series’. With the orchestra he founded Freeman presents music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Fela Sowande, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, George Walker, Roque Cordero, Adolphus Hailstork, Hale Smith, David Abel’s, David Baker, William Banfield and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Freeman released a CD dedicated exclusively to the music of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson as well.
Violinist Rachel Barton-Pine released a disc of violin concertos by 18th and19th century black composers on Cedille and there is a disc of choral music which includes music by black composers.
Let’s turn now to the Albany www.albanyrecords.com label where you can find more of the artistry of Paul Freeman in 18 albums where he presents neglected music of the 20th century by a wide variety of composers black and white. Most of it is by American composers and much of that in styles related to the mid-century styles of the likes of William Schuman, Aaron Copland and their students. While these discs include music by many of the previously mentioned black composers there are no duplications of works or performances. I have heard but a few of these discs but what I have heard is enough to convince me to plan to purchase the others. Freeman, in addition to bringing the music of black composers to the listening audience has done a fine job of documenting many whose work has been little heard until now.
Another composer who fits more or less into the context of the conventions of the western concert traditions whose work has informed my listening is that of Anthony Davis (1951- ). While he has played with musicians from more experimental traditions the influence of the western concert traditions is more easily heard.
His study of jazz as well as western classical and eastern gamelan are all evident in his work (though not necessarily all at the same time). The New York City Opera produced his, ‘X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X’ in 1986 and the Lyric Opera of Chicago produced ‘Amistad’ in 1997. He has written concertos for piano and for violin as well as music for orchestra and smaller ensembles. At the time of this writing he is professor of music at the University of California San Diego.
So far the music we have discussed has been of the sort more commonly heard in concert halls these days. Freeman’s efforts have seemingly jump-started the recording industry to pay some attention to the music of black and other neglected composers. Certainly there is much more gold to be mined there. But we have yet to address the contemporary scene, the new and creative artists who are bringing innovative ideas and sounds and advancing the musical arts for subsequent generations. Following on the innovations of great jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman (among many) there was increasing focus on techniques being used by contemporary “classical” composers
To these ends there is no better place to start than with the AACM, the American Association of Creative Musicians. Founded in Chicago in 1965 this collective has strived to bring various elements of black culture in an incredibly eclectic and experimental milieu which has had and continues to have an influence on music, musicians and audiences. This collective was finally given a proper overview in George Lewis’ book, ‘A Power Stronger Than Itself’. Lewis, a trombonist, composer and currently professor of music at Columbia University in New York was a member of the AACM.
The AACM was not the only such collective but it was one of the most visible, at least to me. And it continues to develop and evolve bringing the complex and innovative musical ideas evolving from the black roots of jazz to a level of recognition and respect formerly accorded pretty much exclusively to European academic models. The AACM, dubbed “Great Black Music” also strives to retain the identity of black music by black peoples of the world looking to non-western models that predate European colonialism marrying them to the best of European models as absorbed by the diaspora. Many of their members now hold academic positions including Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and Nicole Mitchell.
Perhaps the best known ensemble to come out of the AACM is the flexibly-membered Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their album ‘Third Decade’ released in 1984 is representative of their work and also marks a sort of end to one creative era for this flexibly-membered group. Most listeners will hear this as progressive jazz and it certainly has those elements. But repeated listenings reveal many layers to this work. And this is but one of a large catalog of albums as diverse as they are numerous (about 50 albums and still counting). More on their work at their website www.artensembleofchicago.com.
Another prominent figure that was a member of AACM is Anthony Braxton, saxophonist, composer, chess master who dislikes the term ‘jazz’ in reference to his music. He is currently professor of music at Wesleyan University. And indeed his music which ranges from solo saxophone work to small ensemble and orchestral music and opera are difficult to classify. His experimentalism is related to but not derivative of the work of John Cage. It would be impossible to represent his musical output in a single album but the solo saxophone ‘For Alto’ (1968) and ‘Creative Orchestra Music’ (1976) are good places to start in his discography of well over 100 albums. His website tricentricfoundatio.org offers many of his recordings for sale and even offers free downloads of bootleg recordings.
For the sake of brevity I will discuss only one more artist in this blog entry, Julius Eastman (1940-1990). He was a composer, vocalist, pianist and dancer. As a vocalist he sang and recorded the music of Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, Morton Feldman, Arthur Russell and Peter Maxwell-Davies. He was very much a part of the avant garde downtown scene in New York of the 1970s.
At the time of his sad death from a heart attack at the age of 49 there were but a few recordings of his work (collected in a nice 3 CD set on the New World label). And many of his scores were lost when he was unceremoniously evicted from his apartment. The composer Mary Jane Leach is attempting to collect and preserve his legacy and has made many of his extant scores on her website http://www.mjleach.com/eastman.htm.
Without a doubt there are many more black classical and avant-garde artists I have yet to discover. I welcome suggestions and I hope that the preceding ideas will stimulate and encourage others to explore these artists and works.
In honor of Black History Month I want to bring attention in this blog to black music that is not a part of popular culture. I want to highlight some of the black classical composers whose work I find most satisfying and accomplished.
I will begin with the music of Adophus Hailstork. I had been aware of some of this man’s work for some years but it was when I purchased the Naxos recording of his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies that I came to appreciate the power of his work.
Hailstork was born in 1941. He studied piano, organ, voice and violin. He is another of a long line of composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. As one would expect, some of his music is concerned with significant events of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s. ‘American Guernica’ of 1983 is his response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four little girls. Similarly his 1979 composition, ‘Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed’ is an homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.
I purchased the Naxos disc to become more familiar with this man’s music. The first work on the disc is the 3rd Symphony of the late 1990s struck me as a highly entertaining and accomplished work that deserves a place in the symphonic repertoire. It is a joyous and inventive work which, to my ears, echoed the likes of orchestral masters such as William Schuman and Vincent Persichetti as well a hint of minimalist repetitive structures. It is a lavish neo-romantic work with a depth and complexity that demands several hearings but one which has an immediate appeal. The somber 2nd Symphony is imbued with the composer’s reactions to having visited the historical slave market areas of West Africa which, I imagine, must be not unlike visiting the death camps of the former Nazi Germany.
As time and finances permit I intend to pursue more of this American composer’s works. There is precious little reference material to be found on the Internet regarding this prolific masterful composer (as is the case with all the black classical composers i have so far encountered) though, thankfully, there are more recordings.
Africlassical.com and its related blog provide some information on about 50 composers and musicians. The now retired daring black conductor Paul Freeman recorded a significant series of music by black composers issued on 9 LPs for Columbia records in the 1970s. He recorded another 3CDs of music by black composers on Chicago-based Cedille records. He founded the Chicago Sinfonietta (billed as the world’s most diverse orchestra) and was its principal conductor for 24 years and continues in its mission of diversity presenting unusual concert repertoire.
More about some of the composers on those Columbia LPs and Cedille CDs as well as others to come in future blogs during this month.