Celebrating Black Music Month 2011 - Part 4
June 28, 2011
For the fourth and final chapter in our current series for Black Music Month 2011, we want to focus on African-American composers. They composed all types of music that have made and are still making a difference.
Before the 20th century, many African-American composers had to go to Europe to pursue their musical careers because of the prejudice that existed in the U.S. Of the many composers we have chosen a few select examples to share with you.
The first is Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George. Born in Guadeloupe to a wealthy planter and an African slave, Boulogne Saint-Georges and his family moved to Paris in 1753. Along with being trained in composition and violin he was also a fencer, which earned him the title of Chevalier at age 19. He went on to emerge as one of Paris' most gifted musicians, composers, conductors and violinists. He would have been music director of the Paris Opera, but his appointment was blocked by a small group of leading ladies who refused to "submit to the orders of a mulatto."
Despite that, he went on to become widely regarded as one of the best orchestra conductors in Europe during the period when he was the conductor of Le Concert Des Amateurs during the period between 1773 -1781. Chevalier de Saint-George composed and performed a dozen violin concertos and at least ten symphonies. He became known as "The Black Mozart."
African-American composers have a long history in the classics, but many of their contributions are been little known. One prime example is our second composer: Scott Joplin, who was largely forgotten until the ragtime revival of the '70s, but is now one of the best-known and well-loved composers of all time. He received little artistic acknowledgement during a lifetime that was plagued by romantic and personal problems. He also had little financial success. His music is more notable for its wit and light-hearted charm. While known primarily for his piano rags, Joplin put considerable energy into larger-scare works, particularly a ballet and two operas. In 1976, posthumously Joplin received a Pulitzer Prize in recognition of his contribution to American music. He was the first African-American to be so honored.
Many people are not aware of the contributions female African-American composers have made. One such woman is our third composer, Florence Price, who achieved a remarkable level of success as a composer. She faced tremendous obstacles as a woman of color in a field dominated by white men. Price was raised in Arkansas, played piano and organ and had her first composition published when she was just 11 years old. She went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music finally settling in Chicago. There she became a teacher and theater organizer.
She also wrote popular songs and pedagogical materials for piano. Many groups, including the U.S. Marine Band, contralto Marian Anderson and soprano Blanche Thebom, performed her music. She also received a commission from Sir John Barbirolli. The Chicago Symphony performed her third symphony in 1933, marking the first time a major American orchestra performed music composed by an African-American woman.
As we continue with our current series for Black Music Month 2011, this time we want to focus on one man whose life and music has made, and is still making, a difference -- Quincy Jones. Quincy Jones has been many things to many people. He is a musician, producer, composer and mentor. He has not only kept pace with music's always changing face, but carved a few paths of his own. Quincy studied trumpet as a youngster, studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and toured with the legendary Lionel Hampton. By the time he was in his early 20s, he was arranging and recording for Sarah Vaughn, Ray Charles, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Big Maybelle, Dinah Washington, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and LaVern Baker.
Quincy Jones blazed another new trail in 1964, becoming the first high-level African-American executive of an established record label when he signed on as VP at Mercury Records. In that same year Quincy Jones turned his baton to another musical area that had long been closed to blacks -- the world of film scores. At the invitation of director Sidney Lumet, Q composed the music for "The Pawnbroker." That was the first of his 33 major motion picture scores.
Quincy Jones also made his talents and presence felt in television, scoring the themes for "Ironside," "Sanford and Son" and "The Bill Cosby Show." It was in 1981 that he went back into the studio to produce Michael Jackson's first solo album, "Off The Wall." Then in 1982 Q and Jackson teamed up for "Thriller." It became the best-selling album of all time, selling over 30 million copies around the world and yielding an unprecedented six top-10 singles.
In 1985 Quincy Jones was directly involved in assembling one of the greatest groups of recording artists ever assembled for the "We Are The World" project. The song was written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson and featured 45 stars.
Throughout his life, Quincy has redefined excellence. His career as a composer, record producer, artist, film producer, arranger, conductor, instrumentalist, television producer, record company executive, magazine founder and multimedia entrepreneur spanned more than six decades.
In spite of the considerable progress that has been made by African-Americans in some areas of music, including classical and jazz -- certainly important musical strides --discrimination still exist in our industries. Common sense and reality have both been affronted regularly in the anti-discrimination war. Much of this silliness and confusion stems from simple blindness to what a polyglot society is really like. In 2011 America is still like a patchwork of many sub-societies (based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, education, cultural taste and language.)
Every group naturally tends to exclude outsiders under certain circumstances. But this need not inevitably conflict with the achievement of a society that does not shut anybody off from any reasonable path of opportunity. The notion of an open pluralistic society becomes a contradiction in terms unless there is some common sense to limit both its openness and pluralism. To define that limit is difficult. Perhaps it can be fixed only case by case, as are conflicts between equally valid constitutional rights.
A grain of sense needs to be applied to the current situation. Too many excursions into absurdity will achieve little more than amusement; black music has extended beyond American music. It is fast becoming the music of the world. Many African-American composers are little known but, as we demonstrated with this piece, there were many who helped to define international popular culture across all genres, including classical. Black heritage with its African roots is like a badge of pride -- an incentive to action. The "lost, strayed or stolen" musical history of people of color is becoming part of many school curriculums at all levels. Scholars are realizing that America's musical past cannot be fully understood apart from its black components and are working to fill in the gaps.
Black Music Month is a celebration of the long struggle of African-American people for freedom and recognition, a struggle with many triumphs, but one which is not yet over. It is part of a guide to the central facts and key information necessary for a more complete understanding of the black experience itself as well as of its true place as an integral part of the world musical experience.
Eventually, research and all the obstacles echoed from those faced by early African-American pioneers suddenly become penetratingly real. The ground has been broken. In spite of all the discussions, setbacks and barriers, African Americans' contributions to all forms of music have grown into an effective media of expression, fulfilling an important niche in the history of music around the world.