The Anniversary That (almost) Everyone Missed: Bill Doggett (1916-1996), Wizard of the Hammond Organ


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Bill Doggett with his combo (getty images)

William Ballard Doggett, better known as Bill Doggett was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and was introduced to music by his church pianist mother.  He played in a combo while still in high school and went on to work with a plethora of stars in rock, jazz, rhythm and blues amassing a string of hits but, sadly, seems to have barely been noticed on this the 100th anniversary of his birth.  Where is NPR at a time like this?

Well, all is not lost.  Fortunately his nephew and namesake Bill Doggett is doing justice to the memory of this important American musician.  This younger Doggett is an archivist, lecturer, curator, strategic marketer, photographer, filmmaker, and arts advocate (his website is well worth your time).  I am hardly as well prepared to provide more than an overview of this musician’s work but I feel obliged to do my small part in recognizing this man’s work.

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Promotional poster for the September 28, 2016 centennial celebration curated by nephew and namesake, Bill Doggett.

Doggett’s list of chart singles:

  • “Be-Baba-Leba” (vocal by Helen Humes) (Philo/Aladdin 106) 1945 (#3 R&B)
  • “Moon Dust” 1953 (#18 R&B)
  • “Early Bird” 1953 (#21 R&B)
  • “No More In Life” 1953 (#20 R&B)
  • “High Heels” 1954 (#15 R&B)
  • “Honky Tonk, Part 1″/”Honky Tonk, Part 2” (King 4950) 1956 (#1(14) R&B/#2(3) Pop)
  • “Slow Walk” (King 5000) 1956 (#4 R&B/#19 Pop)
  • “Ram-Bunk-Shush” (King 5020) 1957 (#4 R&B)
  • “Soft” 1957 (#11 R&B)
  • “Leaps And Bounds, Part 1″/”Leaps And Bounds, Part 2” (King 5101) 1958 (#13 R&B)
  • “Blip Blop” 1958 (#11 R&B)
  • “Hold It!” (King 5149) 1958 (#3 R&B)
  • “Rainbow Riot, Part 1″/”Rainbow Riot, Part 2” (King 5159) 1959 (#15 R&B)
  • “Monster Party” (King 5176) 1959 (#27 R&B)
  • “Yocky Dock, Part 1″/”Yocky Dock, Part 2” (King 5256) 1959 (#30 R&B)
  • “Honky Tonk, Part 2” 1961 (#21 R&B)

 

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    Doggett’s best known work.

While his last chart hit was 1961 his collaborations with  Lucky MillinderFrank FairfaxJimmy Mundythe Ink SpotsLouis JordanJohnny Otis, Wynonie Harris, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie,  Lionel HamptonRed Holloway, Clifford Scott, Percy France, David “Bubba” Brooks, Clifford Davis, and Floyd “Candy” Johnson; guitarists Floyd Smith, Billy Butler, Sam Lackey and Pete Mayes; and singers Edwin Starr, Toni Williams and Betty Saint-Clair attest to the scope of his work.  Doggett continued to play and arrange until his death from a heart attack in New York in 1996 at the age of 80.

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Bill Doggett photographed in France in 1980 by Lionel Decoster (from Wikipedia article)

The Hammond Organ is known for being the workhorse of modern classical as well as rock, rhythm and blues and jazz.  It was Bill Doggett who became one of the early masters of this (then new) electronic instrument.  While he was also a highly competent pianist, it was with the Hammond Organ that he had his greatest success. There is little doubt that his playing has influenced subsequent musicians who took on this instrument.

Here’s hoping that astute musicians and producers will take on the task of recognizing the work of the late great Bill Doggett.  Toward that end here, from Wikipedia, is a discography of his work:

10 inch LPs

  • Bill Doggett: His Organ And Combo, Volume 1 King 295-82 (1954)
  • Bill Doggett: His Organ And Combo, Volume 2 King 295-83 (1954)
  • All Time Christmas Favorites King 295-89 (1954)
  • Sentimentally Yours King 295-102 (1955)

12 inch LPs (on King Records)

  • Moon Dust King 395-502 (1956)
  • Hot Doggett King 395-514 (1956)
  • As You Desire Me King 395-523 (1956)
  • Everybody Dance The Honky Tonk King 395-531 (1956)
  • Dame Dreaming With Bill Doggett King 395-532 (1957)
  • A Salute To Ellington King 533 (1957)
  • The Doggett Beat For Dancing Feet King 557 (1957)
  • Candle Glow King 563 (1958)
  • Swingin’ Easy King 582 (1958)
  • Dance Awhile With Doggett King 585 (1958)
  • 12 Songs Of Christmas [reissue of King 295-89 plus 6 additional tracks] King 600 (1958)
  • Hold It! King 609 (1959)
  • High And Wide King 633 (1959)
  • Big City Dance Party King 641 (1959)
  • Bill Doggett On Tour [this is NOT a live album] King 667 (1959)
  • For Reminiscent Lovers, Romantic Songs By Bill Doggett King 706 (1960)
  • Back With More Bill Doggett King 723 (1960)
  • The Many Moods Of Bill Doggett King 778 (1962)
  • Bill Doggett Plays American Songs, Bossa Nova Style King 830 (1963)
  • Impressions King 868 (1963)
  • The Best Of Bill Doggett [compilation] King 908 (1964)
  • Bonanza Of 24 Songs [compilation] King 959 (1966)
  • Take Your Shot King 1041 (1969)
  • Honky Tonk Popcorn King 1078 (1970)
  • The Nearness Of You King 1097 (1970)
  • Ram-Bunk-Shush [compilation] King 1101 (1970)
  • Sentimental Mood [compilation] King 1104 (1970)
  • Soft [compilation] King 1108 (1970)
  • 14 Original Greatest Hits [compilation; reissued as ‘All His Hits’] King-Starday 5009 (1977)
  • Charles Brown: PLEASE COME HOME FOR CHRISTMAS [this vocal album includes 4 instrumental tracks by Bill Doggett] King-Starday 5019 (1978)

12 inch LPs (on other labels)

  • 3,046 People Danced ‘Til 4 A.M. To Bill Doggett [this is a live album] Warner Bros. WS-1404 (1961)
  • The Band With The Beat! Warner Bros. WS-1421 (1961)
  • Bill Doggett Swings Warner Bros. WS-1452 (1962)
  • Rhythm Is My Business (Ella Fitzgerald with Bill Doggett) Verve V6-4056 (1962)
  • Oops! The Swinging Sounds Of Bill Doggett Columbia CL-1814/CS-8614 (1962)
  • Prelude To The Blues Columbia CL-1942/CS-8742 (1962)
  • Finger-Tips Columbia CL-2082/CS-8882 (1963)
  • Wow! ABC-Paramount S-507 (1964)
  • Honky Tonk A-La-Mod! Roulette SR-25330 (1966)
  • The Right Choice After Hours/Ichiban 4112 (1991) Note: this is Bill’s last recorded album of original material; also released on CD.

OK all you producers, have at it.

 

 

 

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A Grand Early Start to Black History Month


 

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The United States (unlike England who use the 31 day month October) has chosen the shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History  but I have managed to get 30 days to celebrate this year by starting a day early in this leap year.  Basically I cheated, deal with it.

This is the year of the last term of our first black president and, while that is a historically significant fact, so are the facts of the police killings that demands the development of interventions like “Black Lives Matter” to remind society of a fact that should be obvious but clearly is not, that we have a serious human rights crisis here.  However, rather than getting into yet another acknowledgement of our racist society, I am interested in sharing a wonderful positive experience that I hope will provide as much inspiration to my readers as it did to the fortunate folks who attended this night’s festivities.

Friend and colleague Bill Doggett kindly made arrangements for me to attend this annual fundraising event at the Eastside College Preparatory School and sponnsored by the African American Composer Initiative  and the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music.  The featured guest was composer/pianist Valerie Capers (1935- ) a Julliard trained pianist and composer. She was joined by a wealth of highly skilled musicians in a fascinating program of music and arrangements by Capers, John Robinson and several others.

The well attended evening began with a couple of vocal numbers done by the Eastside Preparatory School Choir followed by the playing of the beginning of a documentary film about Ms. Capers (Dr. Valerie Capers: Dream Big, 2015).  In the excerpt she talks about her life, losing her sight and the importance of music to her.  She is a delightfully positive, optimistic and energetic person and, as we saw later, a powerful and inspiring musician. This became even more evident when we were treated to the live interview conducted from the stage by LaDoris Cordelle, herself an accomplished pianist and singer as well as a respected lawyer, judge and activist.

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LaDoris Cordelle (left) interviewing Valerie Capers

Participating this evening were the Eastside Preparatory School Choir conducted by David Chaidez, soprano Yolanda Rhodes, vocalists/pianists LaDoris Cordell and Deanne Tucker, pianist Josephine Gandolfi, violinist Susan C. Brown, cellist Victoria Ehrlich, and clarinetist Carol Somersille along with guest artists Valerie Capers, John Robinson (bass, composer), Jim Kassis (percussion), Rufus Olivier (bassoon), Stephanie McNab (flute), John Monroe (trombone), John Worley (trumpet) and Lauren Sibley (narrator in “Ruby”).  I must say that the musicians this evening were truly spectacular and seemed to work even harder in their homage to guest of honor Valerie Capers.

The musical program properly began with the performance of John Robinson’s Fanfare for an Uncommon Woman (2015).  The work whose title echoes Aaron Copland’s populist Fanfare for the Common Man (1941) and was written in honor of Ms. Capers.  This was followed by several of Capers’ Portraits in Jazz (1976) compositions and her take (not at all like Vivaldi’s) on the four seasons in her, Song of the Seasons (1987).

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Valerie Capers with John Robinson acknowledging the grateful applause.

The first half of the program concluded with Capers’ Winter Love, her gloss on Wagner and her arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing”.

The second half began with Bird Alone, an Abbey Lincoln song arranged by Capers.  This was followed by another composition from Mr. Robinson, “Tarantella with a Twist of Lime” (2015), a catchy somewhat humorous piece, and then “Doodlin'” by Horace Silver.

Next up was a work in a genre of great interest to this reviewer, that of a political classical piece written to express political ideas.  Ruby (2013) with text and music by Valerie Capers is a work for narrator, vocalists and ensemble that tells the story of Ruby Bridges who, in 1960, became the first black child admitted to the the all white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.  She had to be accompanied by Federal Marshals under orders from then President Eisenhower.  Bridges was the only black student and was taught by the only teacher willing to teach a black student, Barbara Henry who remained Bridges teacher for the entire year and there were no other students in that classroom though some white families did eventually send their children back to the school where they were taught in their accustomed segregated fashion (ironic here too because New Orleans had had the beginnings of an integrated school system prior to the civil war). Bridges and her family suffered many indignities as a result of her participation in this landmark event, a critical step in the Civil Rights Movement. This was a powerful and touching piece performed with reverence, sympathy driven by the hindsight of the accomplishment itself as well as the frustration and sadness that even some 50 years later the struggle still continues.

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The Grand Finale

The evening concluded with a group performance of Capers’ arrangement of the iconic spiritual, “Eyes on the Prize” whose strains provided some of the soundtrack of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.  It is a hymn which still offers much inspiration.  It was a joyful and optimistic evening much like the times 50 years ago whose struggles now rest on the shoulders of yet another generation hoping, praying, working and performing amidst adversities that seem to never end.  But even a progress measured in inches is still progress.

The reception which followed was catered by apprentices from a group called, “Worth Our Weight” (based in Santa Rosa) which teaches culinary and catering skills to minority students.  Various tasty little sandwiches, meatballs and pastries tended to our palates while we took advantage of the opportunity to meet the performers.

I took the opportunity to meet and talk briefly with Capers whose energy was unabated belying her 80 years as she greeted a wealth of appreciative audience members.  I commented to her that I thought her vocal writing sounded a bit like Mahler  Capers paused oh so briefly before stating with her characteristically good humor and a knowing smile, “I think that’s  compliment.” Indeed it was.

 

 

 

 

Spirituals Re-Imagined


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I managed to squeeze a delightful brunch meeting with my busy friend and colleague Bill Doggett on New Years Day.  It was there at a favorite Oakland cafe that we discussed many topics and Bill gave me a copy of this beautiful CD by a young black composer whose work is entirely new to me.

Okpebholo

Shawn Opkebholo (1981- )

Shawn Okpebholo (1981-  ) was born in Lexington, Kentucky.  He earned his B.A. in music at Asbury College and his M.M. and D.M.A. degrees at the  Unniversity of Cincinatti.  Doctor. Okpebholo is currently on faculty at Wheaton College  in Illinois.

The present disc is Opkebholo’s first CD dedicated entirely to his own compositions and is the composer’s “reimagining” of spirituals.  Drawing on the folk tradition of spirituals, worksongs, etc. as well as classical art song traditions he fashions his personal take on these much loved melodies.

I do feel compelled to mention the beauty of the photography and album design.  Greg Halvorsen Schreck took the pictures and Jeremy Botts did the overall design.  Powerful stuff.

In a slight deviation from the classic voice and piano arrangements the composer chose to score this little cycle for baritone, mezzo-soprano, viola and flue along with piano.  For this writer this was an interesting and suitably entertaining choice.

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J’nai Bridges

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Will Liverman

The singers Will Liverman, baritone and J’nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano are marvelous and sensuous voices and discharge their duties most beautifully.  The pianist Paul Tuntland Sànchez is also a composer and very accomplished soloist.

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Paul Tuntland Sanchez

 

 

 

 

The violist is Dorthy White Opkebholo and is the composer’s wife.  She is an accomplished musician in her own right.

The flute is played by Caen Thomason-Redus.

This is a beautiful recording of these loving arrangements of spirituals which can occupy that place in the literature populated by the likes of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs.  A must for art song and folk song fans and a great opportunity to hear some fine musicians at the beginnings of what is hoped to be long and successful careers.

Blackness, Race and Music, What I Have Learned So Far


Two years ago, when I was just at the start of my blogging adventures, I decided it would be a good idea to do a few articles in honor of Black History Month. I am not black and I have no expertise in the area of black music but, in keeping with the personal perspective of this blog, I decided that my interest in these subjects is sufficient reason to express some opinions and ideas.  I chose Carl van Vechten’s portrait of William Grant Still, considered by many to the first major black composer to receive recognition in the 20th Century as my symbol for this article.  Much of his music remains unknown and little performed though there have been some significant recordings released in the last few years.

I called that first set of articles “Black Classical”. Curiously my brief article on black conductors has been one of my most read pieces (947  views as of the time I write these words).   So I continued to write on this subject in the following year. For my second set of articles I took the opportunity to look at the 50 year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by all measures a landmark piece of legislation. I asked a question, in part rhetorical because I had a basic idea of the answers I expected, but also to elicit opinions and to discuss issues of race and music.

I sent queries to a random set of composers and conductors and received a few very gracious replies. Comments ranged from carefully worded egalitarian musings on how black music and music by other racial minorities should be integrated and heard throughout the concert seasons to seemingly careful statements suggesting that this might not even be the right question or that it shouldn’t be asked. Not all comments were published but I am grateful to all who replied. And I have been able to continue this discussion in the various groups on Facebook.

I learned in a (yet to be published) interview with Anthony Davis some fascinating perspectives. Professor Davis did not address my question as I originally asked but he provided some valuable food for thought. It is worth noting that Davis is a composer whose politics are frequently very much in evidence in his music. In a discussion of the current state of music he commented regarding John Cage‘s apolitical stance by saying that, “John Cage’s silence is the silence of white privilege.” One could argue that taking an apolitical stance may have contributed to Cage’s ability to get grants and commissions.  Politically charged music generally does not fare as well.

In general I found more or less what I expected. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has had little, if any, benefit for black musicians and composers. And given the ongoing killing of unarmed black men by police one must wonder if we have been going backwards as a society. But I don’t want to do a grand social critique here. That is a subject for another blog and is a bit outside of my scope at least for now.

I found some musicians who did not want to address racial and discriminatory issues. It seems the issue is too “hot” and that one could face consequences for even asking the question. And some did not feel sufficiently well-versed in Civil Rights history to make a truly informed assessment of this issues.  Perhaps it is a form of white privilege that allows me to ask such a question. We shall see if any reactions result in verbal attacks or (not likely I think) in a reduction in my readership.

What I have learned is that black classical musicians (who are not in short supply) occupy very few prominent positions in academia, in the public sphere of conductors and performers and in the representation in recorded performances of what is a rich but virtually untapped repertoire.  The inequality remains with perhaps some progress but not enough to pronounce the issues here as resolved to a truly significant degree.  But there is a vibrant community of black musicians who are working as did their predecessors to contribute to our collective culture and the discussions are both lively and stimulating.

In 2014 there was a performance by the Cincinnati Symphony of an Oratorio, “The Ordering of Moses” (1937) by R. Nathaniel Dett. The premiere performance of the piece (a beautiful and listener friendly piece of music) was broadcast live. But that broadcast was truncated, leaving out the finale when white listeners complained about music by a black composer getting so much airtime. Happily the entire piece was broadcast uninterrupted and made available in streaming format. However there is no commercial recording of this grand biblical choral work.

I was pleased to be able to review the fully staged performance in May, 2014 of Zenobia Powell Perry‘s opera Tawawa House (1984) in the unlikely venue of Modesto, California by Townsend Opera.  It was a heartfelt and beautiful production and was reviewed here.

Another interesting event in 2014 was the first appearance of three black counter tenors in a performance of a Purcell Opera in Los Angeles.  My blog on this subject can be found here.  I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Doggett who has been very helpful in keeping me up on the latest developments with black musicians and composers and was the person who alerted me to this historic event.

Coming up in March at the Other Minds festival there will be performances by Errollyn Wallen and Don Byron.

I have been able to dialog with various black musicians on Facebook most notably through the groups Black Composers, The National Association of Negro Composers and Opera Noir.  Composer, performer and conductor Anthony R. Green is posting the name of a black composer every day for the month of February with examples of their work.

Some recent films have done much to tell the very unpretty history of black people in the United States including: 12 Years a Slave (2013), after Solomon Northrup‘s harrowing memoir,  Fruitvale Station (2013), a retelling of the execution style shooting of Oscar Grant at the hands of police in Oakland, California, Selma (2014), a dramatization of the 1965 march in support of voting rights (musical direction by Jason Moran).  And this trend, happily, seems to be on the rise providing artistic historical narratives to aid in the processing of the complex, shameful and painful histories depicted.  The lack of recognition by the motion picture industry supports my arguments for the poor representation and acknowledgement of black artists in general.

I have to mention that the wonderful set of recordings by Paul Freeman originally released on Columbia records remains available as a boxed set of 9 vinyl records with notes from the College Music Society now being offered at only $17.50 (that is not a typo either) via mail order.  I’m going to buy a couple of extra copies to give away as gifts.  It’s a really nice set.

Perhaps the most useful thing I learned is the egalitarian approach by conductor Michael Morgan who stated his desire that music by ethnic groups be integrated into programming on a regular basis rather than being highlighted in a given month.  (I am pleased to report that maestro Morgan will be receiving an award for his service to new music from the American Composers Forum.)  I am now using that approach with this blog in which I will continue to highlight the work of musicians and other artists whose work I find interesting and worth promoting.  So please stay tuned.

 

 

The Three Black Counter Tenors, An Historic First


The original incarnation of three classical singers with the same range performing as an act was that of the late Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.  I seem to remember a similar act with three Irish tenors that followed on their model.  Well what we have here is a far more unusual and very historically significant collection of three counter tenors, that voice range of male falsettos roughly corresponding to mezzo-soprano in range.  This is certainly one of the least common type of vocal artist but what makes this a unique historical event is that all three are African-Americans (to use the currently politically correct term).  They’re not performing as an act, though.  They are all starring in a single opera which makes this event even more compelling.

Darryl Taylor

Darryl Taylor

This will happen in the context of performances of Henry Purcell’s 1689 opera, “Dido and Aeneas” in Los Angeles.  I include this in this new music blog because it is certainly a new occurrence and it fits well with my ongoing survey which has looked at black composers since the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Of course this event puts the focus on black performers, an area which I have not attempted to explore.  But is is nice to see this happening in the 50th anniversary year of that landmark legislation.

I only came upon this information when a highly valued friend based in Oakland, Bill Doggett, who is acting as a consultant to the L.A. Opera alerted me to this historic first.  He recently curated a well received exhibition in the Grand Foyer at the San Francisco Opera at the performances of Porgy and Bess.  Bill is a concert producer, strategic marketer, consultant, arts advocate and lecturer whose work promotes black classical artists.  It was he that suggested that this event would fit with the themes developed in my previous blogs.  I did share with Mr. Doggett my experience seeing Mary Zimmerman’s beautiful production of Philip Glass’ Akhenaten in Chicago which featured a black counter tenor named Geoffrey Scott whose name, sadly, seems to have disappeared from the web except for that production.  What was curious about that is that I vividly recall the audience’s reaction when he first came on stage.  It is perhaps more historically accurate to cast a black man as an Egyptian Pharaoh but the audience seemed shocked by his appearance and I didn’t feel that it was just because of his vocal range.

John Holiday

John Holiday

The three singers in this new production include John Holiday, Darryl Taylor and G. Thomas Allen all of whom are making their début performances with L.A. Opera.  Holiday, who will sing the role of the sorceress was the third place winner in this year’s Operalia, a competition founded by  Placido Domingo for singers aged 18-32.  Taylor and Allen will sing the roles of the witches in a production which, as far as I can tell will be the first time three black counter tenors will be appearing on an opera stage  in  the history of the art form.  Taylor is a voice teacher on faculty at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor  and Allen appears to be a rising star whose art we will see at an early point in his career.

Correction: Darryl Taylor is now Associate Professor of voice at Claire Trevor School of the Arts  University of California,Irvine.

G. Thomas Allen

G. Thomas Allen

This performance will be a double bill with the other half of the program being a production of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.  The productions will run from October 25th to November 15th.  Below I am sharing the press release of this historic event.  One hopes that this historic first will shed a more sympathetic light in these embattled times where, in spite of such wonderful historic performances, we endure a correspondingly negative series of news events like those in Ferguson, MO, New York and so many other places where the value of black lives seems to be at a very low ebb.3CountertenormediaNEW.doggett

Tawawa House in Modesto? A New Staging of Zenobia Perry’s Opera.


 

Modesto California is not a common destination for new music productions but I learned of an upcoming performance of Tawawa House by Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004).  It was written in 1984 and premiered in 1987 at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio (actually the geographic setting of this opera) where she was part of the music faculty from 1955-1982.

I only learned of this performance due to my Facebook contact with Bill Doggett, a bay area business developer and marketing consultant who focuses on music by people of color.  The production is staged by Townsend Opera at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, CA.  It was the world première of a revised libretto and orchestration by Perry scholar Jeannie Gayle Poole.

After a mostly pleasant two-hour drive I arrived for my first visit to the central valley town.  I  located the beautiful arts complex and proceeded from a warm sunny spring day into one of several theaters housed in the same building, an arts multiplex, if you will.  The theater was about 2/3 full, a good sign.  It is a large and well-designed theater with great site lines, comfortable seats and a large fully equipped stage with a nicely nested orchestra pit.

The program book listed other productions that Townsend has done and it is an impressive list.  While they program popular standard repertory like La Boheme and Aida (no small feat) I did note that they have also done less frequently performed works such as Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and Offenbach;s Christopher Columbus.  Under the direction of Matthew Buckman since 2008 this is their first world premiere and perhaps their most adventurous production.

The staging (Heike Hambly), costumes (Tara Roe), lighting (Erik Vose), choreography (Erikka Reenstierna) and scenic design (Jean-Francois Revon) were excellent and well suited to what is essentially a chamber opera with spoken dialogue.  The singers were simply amazing both in their vocal artistry and their acting and dancing abilities.  The cast appeared quite comfortable with each other and clearly enjoyed what they were doing.  The orchestra was most ably led by conductor Ryan Murray.  This was a loving, beautiful production with amazing singers who appeared to put their hearts and souls along with their sizable talents to this opera.

The spectacular vocal cast included baritone Lawrence Craig, tenor Anthony P. McGlaun, baritone V. Savoy McIlwain, soprano Leslie Sandefur, baritone Barry Robinson and soprano Shawnette Sulker along with supporting singers and chorus.  These artists alone justified the price of a seat for this performance.

Dramatically staged scene from the second act.

Dramatically staged scene from the second act.

Tawawa House is based on a real place which existed in Ohio and served both as a luxury hotel for white visitors with purported healing waters as well as a major stop on the underground railroad with socially progressive whites assisting in the rescue of slaves from their forced servitude even before the emancipation proclamation.  The story begins before the civil war and ends just after.  It is a story nearly lost to history and one that deserves to be told.

The joyful multiple weddings scene as one happy couple "jumps the broom" in a traditional practice of the era.

The joyful multiple weddings scene as one happy couple “jumps the broom” in a traditional practice of the era.

As an opera it is cast in a conservative musical style relying on spirituals and popular songs of the era with some quotation of both genres.  It consists of choral sections, a few arias and some ensemble singing.  Like many operas this one suffers from a weak libretto at times which nonetheless serves to support the overall structure of the musical work.  This is a gentle retelling of a tale from a sordid and shameful time in our collective history.

The orchestration ranged from a theater orchestra style to some Hollywood-like film score that one might hear in motion pictures from the 1940s.  I don’t know how this edition differed from the original 1987 performance or why the decision was made to revise it.

The cast taking their first bow to the appreciative audience.

The cast taking their first bow to the appreciative audience.

It is difficult to say where this work will take its place in musical history but it certainly deserves to be revived.  I hope that the success of this production will encourage adventurous opera companies such as Townsend to seek out other neglected works in that deserve revival and, in many cases, first performances.

Despite some minor weaknesses the performance was very professionally executed,  full of joy and clearly pleased the audience.  After all theater goers are accustomed to the sometimes silly plots common to a lot of operas and musicals but they are seeking entertainment by talented performers and that is definitely what they got.  This was a wonderful production which now puts Townsend opera on my radar.  Looking forward  to more from this company.  Congratulations on a great show!

 

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Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain


Primjous Fountain (1949- )

Primjous Fountain (1949- )

I first encountered the work of this composer in 1982 in a broadcast concert of the Milwaukee Symphony that featured his Symphony No. 1. He was billed then as, “Primous Fountain III”.  I listened and, as was my obsessive practice, I recorded the work on a cassette tape so that I could listen again and not have the experience fade into obscurity.  I have listened many times to this wonderful piece and now in the age of social media one can find more of his music on his web page and his Facebook page.

Fountain was born in Chicago in 1949 where he attended Wendell Phillips High School and after graduation completed an orchestral piece Manifestation (1967) which was performed by the Chicago Symphony.  He has also had performances by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory under Gunther Schuller.  I was fortunate recently to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Doggett who is a lecturer and marketing representative for black composers who is in touch with Mr. Fountain.  He informs me that Mr. Fountain is alive and well and living in his native Chicago.

Fountain with Hans Werner Henze

Fountain with Hans Werner Henze

Though largely self-taught he later studied with Hans Werner Henze and Gunther Schuller and these experiences seem to have been absorbed into the composer’s palette. In a 1972 interview with Charles Amirkhanian, conductor Harold Farberman and composer Charles Shere the then 20 something Fountain seems to react with disinterest to the apparently sincere  but rather uncomfortable efforts to address racial issues in music.  He speaks as though he feels his music to be so natural a part of his life that he reports his amazing abilities are simply normal to him. He seems unconcerned with the political aspects of being a “black composer”.   His instinct for complex things like orchestration are like walking or breathing, second nature.  His identity is in his music.

Fountain with Gunther Schuller

Fountain with Gunther Schuller

After hearing his youthful work Manifestation none other than Quincy Jones commissioned Fountain’s Symphony No. 2.  There is a performance by the Lugansk Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine under the baton of Miran Vaupotic available for listening on the composer’s web site as well as on You Tube which now sports a performance of the first two movements of his fourth symphony along with the second movement of his Cello Concerto and selections from other orchestral works.

His idiom might be called conservative in that it incorporates a standard orchestra and uses well-known forms such as Symphony and Concerto but his skill at writing is the point much as it is with other composers trained in schools like Julliard, Curtis, Berklee and the New England Conservatory.

His work sounds at times like a latter day Stravinsky with jagged rhythms and rich orchestration.  There is a passionate post-romantic intensity to the pieces I have heard.  I definitely want to hear more.

Fortunately there is now a YouTube channel dedicated to this composer’s work.  There are, however, no commercial recordings of this man’s music that I was able to find.  Here we see a prodigy who was embraced by many in the world of serious music and whose star appeared to have been rising.

But for all the love and attention that prodigies sometimes get it hardly guarantees exposure beyond their youth.  Fountain is not well-known but that has nothing to do with the quality of his music from what I have been able to hear.  And as sincere as the performances are in the MP3 and YouTube selections they are hardly the pinnacle of musical interpretation.  His music is complex and challenging to performers and I have no doubt that a major symphony orchestra with an insightful conductor could better demonstrate the power of his music.

One hopes that the body of music of this American composer will find an audience in his native country some day but limitations of arts funding and the plight of the black minority composer suggest that this will not be an easy path.  I hope that some enterprising young musicology student might take on the cataloging and analysis of his work to help this process.  Any takers?

Maybe the people at Naxos records or one of the many fine and creative independent labels who have recorded so much neglected music might take on the task of bringing some of this music to classical audiences.  It would be a loss to allow it to languish under-appreciated and largely unheard.  We truly don’t know what we’re missing and I think that is a terrible shame.

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