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Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of The 1964 Civil Rights Act,The Black Composer and My Brother's Keeper Initiative

President Lyndon Baines Johnson signs The 1964 Civil Rights Act bill
















As we mark the end of Black History Month 2014, The 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the critical new "My Brother's Keeper"Initiative
http://www.whitehouse.gov/my-brothers-keeper launched by the first African American President, Barack Obama, the impact of these events on and for current and future contemporary African American composers has promise
 
However, the promise is still a mixed one...
 
That is to say, while there was a major flowering and great showcase of programming and recording of music by contemporary Black Composers during the late 1960s-70s, i.e. Primous Fountain, George Walker, Olly Wilson, Adolphus Hailstork et al,  spirited  invitations to the programming of new music by Black Composers in symphony subscription concerts, much of that came to a  halt with the entrenching emergence of a social/cultural conservatism that arrived during the administrations of Presidents Reagan, George H Walker Bush and George W Bush. 

The social political pulse of the country changed from the heightened sense of social responsibility and accountability which dawned during The March on Washington, President Kennedy's TV speech about Negro Civil Rights and the Kennedy-tribute era of LBJ's  "The Great Society" .  

 There was if you will....a “cultural "backlash" to the perception of 
"The Negro"  as a wronged underclass in American society that the beloved and assassinated President spoke of.... to one that became militant in proclaiming a status of "Black and Proud".

Yet, for many "the New Negro" ...now Black and Proud  had a darker side....one that was linked to the controversial yet clairvoyant rhetroic of  Malcolm X  and  the fear of  predictions-become-reality declared in  James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time .

Worse, "The New Negro" became code for many synonymous with "Riots"."welfare mother", "food stamps",  "urban gangs and thugs","housing projects run amuck"...and  "drugs".    

The spirit of the nation called out for "Law and Order"

Black Panther Party: Resist and Exist  Source; Tigweb.com

 












In many ways, the social political tempo of the nation had become uniquely mirrored in and linked to the iconic Nancy Reagan motto "Just Say No" Anti Drug campaign.  

Reaction and resistance to the idealism of The Great Society became enshrined in the face of  a new generation's call for social justice.
 
Black Panther Party Demonstration circa 1970   Source:Newsreel.com

Symphony orchestras slowed their invitations and programming of new music by Black Composers on subscription concerts-except during February, Black History Month.

The young James DePriest:Assistant Conductor NY Philharmonic 1965-66 under Leonard Bernstein:Source:Oregon Symphony

Composer,Primous Fountain's Ritual Dances@Carnegie Hall circa 1973   Primous Fountain's works were championed by Michael Tilson Thomas, Gunther Schuller  and  other notables during the period 1968-1978

Anthony Davis circa 1987 at time of landmark opera, X,The Life and Times of Malcolm X

2014 Academy or Arts and Letters awardee, Alvin Singleton with Leonard Bernstein late 1980s

Conductor, Paul Freeman is responsible for many of the premiere recordings of new works by Black Composers


Yet, there were silver linings and sunshine in the dark clouds 
Notable moments

  • 1975-76 witnessed the launch of the iconic Columbia Records Black Composers Series championed by Conductor Paul Freeman and The Detroit Symphony.  This Series showcased critical music by Black Composers from 1650 to 1976

  • 1986 witnessed the emergence of Anthony Davis and his landmark opera: X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X premiered at the recently closed New York City Opera.

  • 1989 witnessed the emergence and critical recording of Alvin Singleton's brilliant orchestral music by The Atlanta Symphony including the iconic After Fallen Crumbs.

  • 1995 witnessed Olly Wilson's Shango Memory for Orchestra, commissioned for the 150th Anniversary of The New York Philharmonic and The African American Composers Project cd showcase of  Billy Childs' The Distant Land, Bill Banfield's Symphony #6 and David Baker's Jazz Suite for Clarinet and Symphony Orchestra 

  • 1997, Amistad,  The Story of The Slave Ship Rebellion, a new critical opera by Anthony Davis was premiered at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

  • Importantly, there has been a flowering and a critical emergence of a new important generation of composers in the late 1990s and early 2000s including Jonathan Bailey Holland, Trevor Weston, John Wineglass, Anthony R. Green, Renee Baker, Nkeiru Okoye, Charles Murrell
 

The challenge in 2014 for Black Composers is one that was on full view at the recent Sphinx Con think tank conference in Detroit sponsored by Aaron Dworkin's Sphinx Music  www.sphinxmusic.org   
 
Artistic administrators and the core of musicians at the major symphony orchestras consist of predominantly upper to upper middle class white male and female musicians who are slow to embrace a deep commitment to diversity in the classical performing arts.   

As Dworkin has so passionately stated, Black musicians only make up at maximum 2% of the composition of America's orchestras. 

Institutionally, American orchestras and their administrations are comfortable in this ivory tower status.     The entrenched practice of holding auditions with screens actually makes it nearly impossible to advance the goal of making Symphony Orchestras more ethnically diverse.    

Such reality begs the question, are orchestras and other classical performing arts organizations located in urban centers with demographically morphing populations.....interested in or concerned about  building  21st century audiences that are reflective of the communities in which they exist...     

Rhetorically, by inference,  do orchestra halls and opera houses prefer to nurture and build relationships with the sons, daughters and grandchildren of their aging endowment demographic that enshrines the status quo  vs  embrace the multi cultural  demographic that is but 10-15 minutes walking/driving distance from their performance space

 
This challenge applies even more so to the world of The Black Composer. 


At Sphinx Con, one white male presenter quite openly and declaratively.... made the case with an exceptional showcase of statistical analysis that because white men are in charge of most of the leading artistic organizations, that white male privilege.....reigns .....and Black and Latinos seeking more rapid diversity....need to get over it      The Reality of 'the numbers' reflect a core difference in what is considered 'essential' in defining who can play and who has clout to suggest what 'Change' is valued and....what kind of Change is ....manageable .  

Further, the suggestion followed that such artistic organizations [theater in particular] which have a predominantly white attendance and white donor/endowment demographic should be quite proud of and satisfied with their "incremental change" of 1% or 2%  re: audience and community engagement       

 In other words, incrementalism is truly the best approach, but too much diversity becomes a kin to the gentrification code word "nimby"..Not In My Backyard....  

In this light,Change or diversity for diversity's sake can not outpace what is consistent with the core values and mission of an organization's  board, donor and endowment demographic.    

 In 1960s terminology,  Desegregration  must be evaluated slowly, deliberately and on a case by case basis.

During The Civil Rights Movement, this refrain...."go slow...take a gradual approach" was famously repeated over and over to Martin Luther King.  
 This "go slow" paradigm emanating from both civic and interfaith leaders  motivated his passion to write his iconic, A Letter From A Birmingham Jail in 1963   

Rhetorically, the state of affairs in 2014 begs this question: 

Despite the symbolic and measurable advances in both the concert halls and the opera stages of the 1960s-90s and the impact of the careers of Andre Watts, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Martina Arroyo, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves ...and William Warfield, George Shirley, Simon Estes... alongside... "The New Generation" represented by Eric Owens, Lawrence Brownlee, Morris Robinson, Janai Brugger, Pretty Yende, Latonia Moore, Angela Brown and touring ensembles  The Ritz Chamber Players,The Sphinx Virtuosi and The Harlem Chamber Players ......  is the world of  The Classical Performing Arts in The United States the last bastion of Segregation?  

 If the growing pool of  exceptionally talented  African American classically trained instrumentalists, singers, composers and conductors in 2014 are kept out like an Invisible Man out of Ralph Ellison's landmark work of the same name, where are we headed?

This rhetorical question is answered ....in a problematic reality which The Black Composer is confronted in 2014, 50 years after The 1964 Civil Rights Act.
  • Black Composers have been passed over for Commissions to write music commemorating the critical anniversaries of The Civil Rights Movement. i.e. March on Washington, Birmingham Church Bombing, 1964 Mississippi Murders,1965 March on Selma and 1968 Assassination of Martin Luther King
  • How is this possible... that non Black composers are viewed as more instinctively capable of composing music that is critically more relevant and drawn from an experience of being Black.... than Black Composers, many of whom are children of The Civil Rights Movement?    It begs the critical question.... how is this possible and why?
  • Is it defensible.....to suggest  that accomplished Black composers like Olly Wilson, Adolphus Hailstork, Bill Banfield, Billy Childs, Terrance Blanchard and Anthony Davis lack the requisite skills to compose music that honors the Civil Rights legacy of their parents
  
In this light, I give unending applause for the progressive vision and work of Conductor, Leonard Slatkin and The Detroit Symphony for inviting a conversation about nurturing and developing Diversity in Classical Music.  

On March 9/10 2014, Slatkin and The Detroit Symphony presented a feature showcase of music by contemporary African American composers and a related Symposium in their Earshot Classical Roots Reading in association with The American Composers Forum/Orchestra

Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, Music Director 









A similar new energy has found its way to The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with the hiring of African American conductor, Joseph Young as Assistant Conductor and Music Director of The Atlanta Youth Orchestra. http://www.atlantasymphony.org/About/AssistantConductor.aspx
Joseph Young, Newly appointed Assistant Conductor,Atlanta Symphony
 













The Promise of a New Dawn...is on the horizon.  

.....Indeed, "the moral arc of the universe is long, but bends towards justice.." as Martin Luther King so famously remarked

Let us collectively ensure that we are called
to celebrate the truth of the old Negro Spiritual "This Little Light of Mine...Im gonna let it shine......let it shine"


@2014 Bill Doggett Productions

 
RESOURCE LINKS FOR OTHER SITES ENGAGED IN BLACK CONTEMPORARY MUSIC, EVENTS AND ARCHIVES




Critical August 2014 New York Times feature about the "Invisible Man" status of Black Composers and musicians in American Symphony Concert Halls


Composers of Color Collective: A Project of Berklee College of Music, Boston



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