Category Archives: Black studies

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer and conductor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was the son of a doctor from Sierra Leone and an English woman, born in Croydon, England on 15 August 1875. At the age of 15, he was accepted into a violin class at the Royal College of Music in London and studied composition before being awarded a composition scholarship in March 1893. As a composer he progressed far more quickly than his fellow students. At a young age, Coleridge-Taylor became familiar with the works of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had a strong influence on Coleridge-Taylor, especially on his compositions Seven African romances op. 17 (1897), A corn song (1897), African suite op. 35 (1897) and the opera Dream lovers op. 25 (1898). He was also familiar with the writings of Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois, whose collection of essays, The souls of Black folk, he called “the finest book I have ever read by a colored man, and one of the best by any author, White or Black”.

At the age of 23, Coleridge-Taylor was commissioned to write his Ballade in A minor for Britain’s Three Choirs Festival; although he is best known for Hiawatha’s wedding feast, based on poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. The overture Coleridge-Taylor wrote for the piece was inspired by the African American spiritual Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. In 1904, he made the first of three trips to the United States where he toured during the post-Reconstruction era and met notable African American figures such as the poet James Weldon Johnson and the statesman Booker T. Washington. During this period, he also conducted performances of his works at the Washington Festival and Litchfield Festival on the East Coast. Later, Coleridge-Taylor became a professor of composition at Trinity College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music. In addition to cantatas, chamber music, and orchestral works, he also wrote popular songs and incidental music. Coleridge-Taylor passed away at the age of 37 from pneumonia.

Read the full entry on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in MGG Online.

Listen to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha overture below.

A related Bibliolore post:

A new Coleridge-Taylor edition

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Filed under Black studies, Europe, Musicology, North America, Opera, Performers

Max Roach, jazz drummer and Civil Rights activist

Referred to as the “dean of modern jazz drumming,” Max Roach spent his formative years in Brooklyn and received a degree in composition from the Manhattan School. While still in his teens, Roach became one of the innovators of the bop drumming style at jazz fountainheads such as Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem. Among his collaborators have been Coleman Hawkins (with whom he made his first recording in 1944), Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and many others. Known for his melodic, formally structured solos, and compositional experimentation, Roach moved from bop to cool and free jazz styles, and his creative talents were recognized with commissions and awards from various sources, including the MacArthur Foundation and Down Beat magazine.

Roach’s We insist! Freedom now suite, recorded in 1960, moves from depictions of slavery to Emancipation to the Civil Rights struggle and African independence. The work draws on both long-standing symbols of African American cultural identity and a more immediate historical context. It is a modernist work as well, as Roach and his musicians used African and African American legacies in new and novel ways. In a 1987 interview, Roach commented on whether by the time he recorded the Freedom now suite, he had become a Civil Rights activist:

“Well, I guess [Black jazz musicians] always have been [activists], you know? I go back to Bessie Smith with Black mountain blues and then to Duke Ellington’s Black, brown and beige. It’s always been there. Leadbelly always spoke about the issues and the times that existed. And many of the old Black folk singers from the South to street musicians dealt with it. I’ve always been an activist. At that time [in the 1960s], my children were young. But you’re always thinking about their future as well. And if they’re going to come up and be responsible human beings, they have to have education, and the things like everyone else has. And society has to accommodate that. So, I guess I’ve always been activist because of them.”

Listen to the entire We insist! Freedom now suite recording below.

Decades after its initial release, the Freedom now suite remains fresh and significant, foregrounding the ways that jazz has been in consistent dialogue with social and cultural movements, and has been at its most inspired when engaged in social commentary.

Celebrate the beginning of Black History Month by reading the entry on Max Roach in Percussionists: A biographical dictionary (2000, RILM Music Encyclopedias) and “Revisited! The Freedom now suite” by Ingrid Monson (JazzTimes XXXI/7 [September 2001], 54–59.

Below is a performance of We insist! by Abbey Lincoln and the Max Roach group in 1964.

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Filed under Black studies, From the archives, Jazz and blues, North America, Politics, Popular music

Margaret Rosezarian Harris: Conductor, composer, musical director

Margaret Rosezarian Harris (1943–2000) was the first Black woman to conduct the orchestras of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and 12 other U.S. cities. Harris played solo piano recitals in the U.S. and abroad and served as musical director for the Broadway production of Hair. She was a composer of ballets, concertos, and an opera, and served as a U.S. cultural specialist for a production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in Uzbekistan in 1995.

Harris was a child prodigy: she first performed in public when she was three years old and played a Mozart concerto movement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when she was ten. She received her musical education in the public schools of Chicago, Illinois; at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. During the 1960s, Harris was active in New York as a musical director for the Negro Ensemble Company and the New York Shakespeare Festival Company and as a teacher at the the Dorothy Maynor School of the Performing Arts. She made her concert debut as a pianist in 1970 at Town Hall in New York, including some of her original compositions on her program.

The same year she made her debut as a conductor-musical director with the Broadway musical Hair. She also conducted several musicals, including Two gentlemen of Verona (1971) and Raisin (1973). In 1971, she made her debut as a symphony orchestra conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in its Grant Park Concert Series. Harris toured widely at home and abroad as a guest conductor, appearing in concert halls, on college campuses, and at festivals where she frequently performed two roles, conductor and pianist-composer, playing her own piano concertos. She was active in radio and television music and served as the music director for Opera Ebony, and her honors include appointments to national advisory panels and an award from the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1972.

Today is Margaret Rosezarian Harris’ 80th birthday! Read more in the Biographical dictionary of Afro-American and African musicians (1982). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME).

Below is her second piano concerto.

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Filed under Black studies, North America, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Grace Bumbry at Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Grace Bumbry’s appearance as the first African American singer in the role of Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser from 1961 through 1963 sparked fierce reactions. By the age of 23, Bumbry had created such a stir in the opera world that she was invited to audition in Bayreuth for Wieland Wagner, the grandson of the composer Richard Wagner, where he would be producing a new production of Tannhaeuser. When the press discovered that the new Venus was a Black singer, protests began to appear publicly in various publications. Wieland Wagner stated that his grandfather would want the best voice for the part and remained steadfast in his decision to cast Bumbry. Her racial background did not dissuade him, and neither did the negative press. Bumbry courageously performed the role and changed the history of opera by becoming the first person of color ever to be cast in a major role at the prestigious Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The next day, the critics called her “Die Schwarze Venus” (The Black Venus), and a new star was propelled into international stardom.

In those performances, Bumbry paved the way for opera singers of color. She grew up in modest surroundings in St. Louis, Missouri and as a young girl became interested in music after attending concerts given by Marian Anderson. Bumbry’s life was forever altered by the concerts, and she soon absorbed every recording of classical music she could find. At age 16, she won first prize in a local radio contest which provided her the opportunity to appear on The Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show, a popular U.S. radio and television variety show, where she sang “O Don Fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Bumbry later studied at Boston University after encountering racist policies at the St. Louis Conservatory. She continued her studies with Lotte Lehmann in Santa Barbara, California in 1955 and finally with Pierre Bernac in Paris, where she made her debut at the age of 23 as Amneris in Verdi’s Aida at the Théâtre National in 1960. She made her debuts at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden London, as Princess Eboli in Don Carlos in 1963, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1965, and at La Scala in Milan in 1966. Around 1970 she shifted her full, energetic mezzo-soprano voice to soprano and went on to sing Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Salome in Richard Strauss’s eponymous opera. From the late 1980s onward, she returned to her lower voice and took on character roles such as Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Salzburg Festival in 1994.

Bumbry passed away on 7 May 2023 at the age of 86 in Vienna.

Read the full obituary on Grace Bumbry in MGG Online. A previous posting on Bumbry in Bibliolore can be found here: https://bibliolore.org/2017/01/04/grace-bumbry-black-venus/

Below is a video of her performing Vissi d’arte, a soprano aria from the opera Tosca by Giacomo Puccini.

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Filed under Black studies, Europe, Opera, Women's studies

The sonic space of Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal’s laid-back, accessible style of jazz featuring dense chords, a wide dynamic range, and use of silence initially drew criticism from the jazz press early in his career. This style, however, soon became ingrained in the jazz soundscape. The critic Stanley Crouch wrote that bebop’s founding father, Charlie Parker, was the only musician “more important to the development of fresh form in jazz than Ahmad Jamal”. Miles Davis declared, “[Jamal] knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he [phrased] notes and chords and passages.” Jamal’s unmistakable style consisting of an economical and relaxed manner of playing encompassing pauses, distinctive rhythmic accents, a distinctive sense of melody, and a soft intonation. It befitted the intimate instrumentation of the piano trio, which formed the focus of his work. Clint Eastwood borrowed two tracks from the album At the Pershing for his 1995 romance film The Bridges of Madison County. Jamal also inspired hip hop musicians, including Nas, De La Soul, Gang Starr, and Common, all of whom sampled his 1970s work.

Jamal began playing piano when he was three years old and began piano study with Mary Cardwell Dawson at the age of seven. He competed successfully in piano competitions by the time he was eleven and performed publicly in recitals. In his early years, Jamal listened not only to jazz, which he referred to as “American classical music”, but also to Western music. “We didn’t separate the two schools,” he told The New York Times in 2001. “We studied Bach and Ellington, Mozart and Art Tatum.”  

In the early 1950s, he converted to the Islamic faith, changed his name to Ahmad Jamal, and used that name for his trio. Jamal recorded extensively, toured widely in the United States, Europe, Central, and South America, and played long residencies in nightclubs of New York and Chicago, among other cities. He also was active in television and films and played on film soundtracks, including the M*A*S*H soundtrack (1969). He also toured as a soloist, and is best-known for his album But Not for Me. He played in the avant-garde style and exerted wide influence upon trios of the 1960s and 1970s.

Ahmad Jamal passed away on 16 April 2023.

Read more about Ahmad Jamal’s life and jazz career in the Biographical dictionary of Afro-American and African musicians (1982). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME). Also find the obituary on Jamal in MGG Online.

Below is a performance by Ahmad Jamal in 2012 also featuring Yusuf Lateef.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Black studies, Jazz and blues, North America

Casey Jones at the crossroads

On 29 April 1900 the engineer John Luther “Casey” Jones died in the wreck of the Illinois Central’s Cannonball, the fast passenger express from Chicago to New Orleans. No one else was killed or even seriously injured in the accident, a fact generally ascribed to Jones’s skillful but self-sacrificing actions.

The myriad versions of the song commemorating this incident—formally known as The ballad of Casey Jones—stand at the crossroads of the African American and Anglo-American ballad traditions.

Nine years after Jones’s death, Casey Jones (The brave engineer), a vaudeville song by T.L. Seibert and E. Newton, became widely popular. It is generally accepted that Seibert and Newton based it on a song that they had heard among African Americans in New Orleans, which had been composed by Wallace Saunders—a Black roundhouse man who knew Jones personally. “Wallace had a gift for improvising ballads as he labored at wiping engines or shoveling coal” one source reported. “He would sing in rhythm with his muscular activity; and one of his creations, as innumerable witnesses agreed, was the original version of Casey Jones.”

Turning a song deeply rooted in African American traditions into a popular hit involved merging its attributes with those of Anglo-American broadside ballads, which were more characterized by a semi-journalistic recounting of events than by verses extemporaneously arranged around an underlying narrative. Over time, the traditional and popular versions naturally influenced each other, resulting in an uncommonly rich demonstration of pop and folk interactions.

This according to “Casey Jones: At the crossroads of two ballad traditions” by Norm Cohen (Western folklore XXXII/2 [April 1973] 77–103; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1973-2351).

Today is Casey Jones’s 160th birthday! Above, CaseyJonesPortrait (public domain); below, a performance by Furry Lewis, who first recorded the song in 1928, followed by Johnny Cash’s classic recording.

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, North America, Popular music, Reception, Source studies

Nina Simone and Black activism

In 1963 Eunice Waymon, a classically-trained pianist who had recently achieved recognition as a jazz singer under the stage name Nina Simone, learned that four young African American girls had been killed in the bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama.

She immediately wrote the song Mississippi Goddam “in a rush of fury, hatred, and determination.” The lyrics—filled with anger and despair in stark contrast to the fast-paced and rollicking rhythm—vehemently rejected the notions that race relations could change gradually, that the South was unique in terms of discrimination, and that African Americans could or would patiently seek political rights. Simone also challenged principles that are still strongly associated with liberal civil rights activism in that period, especially the viability of a beloved community of Whites and Blacks.

With both her music and her self-presentation, Simone offered a vision of Black cultural nationalism within and outside the U.S. that insisted on female power. Her story demonstrates how events and issues from the 1960s that are often treated as separate were in fact deeply intertwined—the development of Black cultural nationalism, the role of women in Black activism more generally, and the emergence of second-wave feminism.

This according to “‘I don’t trust you anymore’: Nina Simone, culture, and Black activism in the 1960s” by Ruth Feldstein (Journal of American history XCI/4 [2005] 1349–79; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-23369).

Today would have been Simone’s 90th birthday!

Above, Nina Simone 1965 is licensed under CCO 1.0; below, performing Mississippi Goddam in 1965.

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Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Performers, Politics, Women's studies

Wagogo music and ethics

Among the Gogo people of Tanzania music is an essential factor in societal cohesion, comprising the central link between earthly and spiritual life. Gogo music is concerned with ethics, not aesthetics, and it is governed by direct connections between performance circumstances and musical parameters.

For example, the polyphonic section linked to the performance of cipande functions as a way to relieve pain during ritual male circumcision. After the song has begun, the men surround the boy who is about to be circumcised and, on a signal, break into  vocal polyphony as they project their voices toward him; the women continue to sing just outside the ritual circle. The information saturation generated by the dense polyphonic texture acts as a natural anesthetic, as the distracted boy is unable to process the aural complexity.

This according to “Logic and music in Black Africa. II: Social function and musical technique in the Gogo heritage, Tanzania” by Polo Vallejo (TRANS: Revista transcultural de música/Transcultural music review XI [July 2007]; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2007-7124).

Above, a Gogo women’s drum group (courtesy of Martin Neil, Voices from the Nations); below, a demonstration of cipande singing.

More posts about Tanzania are here.

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Filed under Africa, Black studies

Gandy dancers

Before the 1950s, all railroad tracks in the U.S. were laid and maintained by hand labor. In the segregated South, this work was mainly done by Black men.

The section crews responsible for maintaining the tracks were sometimes known as gandy dancers, probably because of the coordinated rhythmic movements required for repositioning tracks that had become misaligned. They synchronized their movements with call-and-response singing of improvised couplets and stock refrains.

The tradition is documented in Gandy dancers by Maggie Holtzberg and Barry Dornfeld (Cinema Guild, 1994; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-38971).

Below, the trailer for the film; the complete 30-minute film can be viewed here.

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Anne Brown and “Porgy and Bess”

Anne Brown literally put the Bess in Porgy and Bess by inspiring George Gershwin to expand the character’s part in an opera that was originally to be called Porgy.

Brown was the first person Gershwin heard singing the role of Bess, who was a relatively minor character in the original 1925 DuBose Heyward novel. As he composed the opera, often with Brown at his side, Gershwin added more and more music for her. Because Gershwin died at 38 in 1937, she was the only Bess he ever knew.

Brown was in her second year of graduate studies at Juilliard when she read that Gershwin was writing his opera. She wrote to ask for an interview, which his secretary granted. She sang music by Brahms, Schubert, and other classical composers; then he asked her to sing a Black spiritual. Brown hesitated at the racial stereotyping, but finally sang an unaccompanied spiritual. Gershwin was silent after she finished; then he told her that it was the most beautiful spiritual he had ever heard, and they hugged.

In the last days of rehearsals, Gershwin told Brown that he was expanding the title of the opera to include Bess, her part. Though critics initially weren’t sure what to make of the work, her performance in it received wide acclaim.

This according to “Anne Brown, who was Gershwin’s Bess, dies at 96” by Douglas Martin (The New York times 18 March 2009; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-633).

Anne Brown would have been 100 years old this month! Above and below, a filmed excerpt from her performance.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Black studies, Opera, Performers