Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of The 1964-65 Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts,The Black Composer and My Brother's Keeper Initiative
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As we mark the end of
Black History Month 2015, the 51th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, The 50th Anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and
the critical new "My Brother's Keeper"Initiative
by the first African American President, Barack Obama, the impact of these
events on and for current and future contemporary African American composers has
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 both the commissioning and programming of new music by Black Composers in symphony
subscription concerts slowed notably and then ....virtually disappeared with
the entrenching emergence of a social/cultural conservatism
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 and drug dealers".
The spirit of the nation called out for "Law and Order", a vociferous and clairvoyant announcing of a "New Jim Crow" steeped in Mass Incarceration of "dangerous elements" to protect "The Social Good".
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.
Reactionism and resistance to the idealism of The Great Society became enshrined in the face of a younger generation's call for social justice.
A Hegelian and Marx like "dialectical conflict" became foundational.
Symphony Halls located in downtown urban centers became sacred refuges for surburban charter buses transporting a beloved aging subscriber and donor base which fled to the suburbs [White Flight] and viewed themselves as removed from the incursion of Fergusons and #BlackLives Matter Movements...... not yet born....
Valhalla like ...as if built by Wotan to enshrine the immortality of the chosen Gods who entered into Vahallas of the present and future times..... these sacred places were viewed as untouchable by the realities of the dark Metropolis like world over which this Valhallian utopia thrived...
......Untouchable and beyond reach...... by the troubled and denied…..potentialities of the not yet born Ferguson
Mike Browns as student ushers at St Louis Symphony or Cleveland Tamir Rices as attendees of Cleveland Orchestra Young People’s Concerts, in this Wagnerian Ring Cycle analogy,
it is as if this world was heedless of Erda's plea and warning... of Alberich's curse, of Hagen's tribal drive for power and ultimately Brunhilde's threat of a necessary and immutable immolation....
....A dream deferred by a promissory note , Symphony orchestras
slowed their invitations and programming of new and older music by Black
Composers on subscription concerts-except during February, Black History Month.
the late Maestro, Paul Freeman:The Drum Major for Contemporary African American Composers transitioned this week, July 2015 .
Paul Freeman is responsible for the landmark Black Composers Series on Columbia Records of the mid to late 1970s
Yet, there were silver
linings and sunshine in the dark clouds
- 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
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 an important younger generation
of composers including
Trevor Weston, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Shawn Okpebholo, Joel Thompson,John Wineglass, Gary Powell Nash and Jessie Montgomery
The challenge in 2014-2015 for Black Composers is one that was on full view at the Sphinx Con 2014 think
tank conference in Detroit sponsored by Sphinx Music www.sphinxmusic.org
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
Black musicians only make up at maximum 2% of the composition
of America's orchestras.
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
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 .
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 2014-2017 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" 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 2014-2017 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 and 2015, 50 years after The 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts.
- 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.
In March of every year since the mid 2000s, 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.
Other American Composers Orchestra Diversity in Composition events showcasing the new works of Black Composers have followed since 2014 through 2019.
A similar new energy has
found its way to The Minnesota Orchestra's appointment of Roderick Cox as Assistant Conductor. Cox has since moved on from The Minnesota Orchestra.
In 2018, he received the prestigious Georg Solti Conducting Award and is one of the most sought after young Black conductors in the world.
More is needed ....but incremental promise continues in 2019.
The African American Network of The Chicago Symphony presented a new work by African American composer, Renee Baker dedicated to the life and legacy of James Baldwin in early February.
On February 17th, 2019, Adolphus Hailstork's commission by The LA Philharmonic for its 2019 Centennial Season witnessed the world premiere of the stunning orchestral work that honored the legacy of William Grant Still, titled STILL HOLDING ON conducted by Thomas Wilkins.
Photography@2019 Bill Doggett Productions
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
to celebrate the truth
of the old Negro Spiritual "This Little Light of Mine...Im gonna let it
shine......let it shine"
@2015-2019 Bill Doggett Productions LLC
FOR OTHER SITES ENGAGED IN BLACK CONTEMPORARY M USIC, EVENTS AND ARCHIVES
- A Must Read Article by leading Opera Tenor and Activist, Russell Thomas
Critical August 2014 New York Times feature about the "Invisible Man" status of Black Composers and musicians in American Symphony Concert Halls