Black Classical Part Four


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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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