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.